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11 August 2010, 10:47 am
The Medal Maker Celebrates His 60th Birthday
Victor 'the medal maker' Kovalenko
Victor 'the medal maker' Kovalenko

Victor Kovalenko celetrates his 60th birthday

As one of the world's most renowned sailing coaches, Victor Kovalenko, celebrated his 60th birthday on 5 August.
One of the not so secret weapons behind the success of the Australian Olympic team is their Ukrainian born Head Coach, Victor Kovalenko.

In true Aussie tabloid style Kovalenko has been dubbed 'the medal maker' thanks to his impressive record. Since Seoul in 1988, he has contributed to five Gold medals and three Bronze, twice scoring 'double gold' with the Australian team - in Sydney with Tom King and Mark Turnbull and Jenny Armstrong and Belinda Stowell and in Beijing with Nathan Wilmot and Malcolm Page and Elise Rechichi and Tessa Parkinson.

These successes were preceded by a 1996 Olympic gold-medal winning performance from Yevhen Bratslavets and Igor Matvienko (UKR) in the 470 men, and a bronze for Ruslana Taran and Elena Pakholchik (UKR) in the 470 women.

There are probably other coaches out there with a medal tally approaching his score, but in the circles he operates Kovalenko is considered something of a guru, more than a mere coach. Certainly you perceive this when you meet him - he has an endearing sparkle and a modesty that instantly warms you to him, but also has the piercing insight of a top psychologist and, one suspects, the ability to probe alarmingly deep into your soul.

According to American Morgan Reeser, who coaches the British 470 squad, and has observed him since 1985 when Kovalenko was coaching the Soviet Union team, Kovalenko is unique in that he trained from the outset as a coach. "To be honest it probably wouldn't matter if he was a sailing coach or a track coach. He has a very good mental style for sailors. Some sailors like Nathan Wilmot took years to finally buy into Victor's system."

Heralding from Dnipropetrovsk, Kovalenko as a sailor competed as a crew in the Flying Dutchman and also the 470, and was set to go the Olympic Games in Los Angeles as part of the Soviet Union team until Soviet Union chose to boycott it. But this incident galvanised his move from sailor to coach.

So what was it like being part of the Soviet team? "It was a unique environment. It was a university in sport because East Germany and the Soviet Union they had such strong sports histories and they had a high education in sport," states Kovalenko.
All of the Soviet sailors in the pre-Glasnost 1980s were full time and in this period Valentin Mankin was the leading light - by 1980 he had become one of the most successful Olympic sailors of all time having won three golds and a silver, uniquely in a range of classes from the Finn, the Tempest to ultimately the Star.

"It was the life university, because when we were sailing and I was in the national team, Valentyn Mankin was sailing and a lot of other legends and I was learning from them, their spirit and their attitude and their knowledge," reminisces Kovalenko. "We had a system with a scientists group and psychologists, and we were always on the edge."

He continues: "We were a unique squad. Sport at that time was very important and very political. It was the fighting between the two systems - capitalism and communism. And the communists always were trying to show their power. That is why the Soviet Union was winning all the time at all the Olympic Games with 50-60 gold medals."

Following his success with the Ukrainian team in Savannah, he accepted an offer from the Australia Yachting Federation and moved to Australia in October 1997.

"The first time I went to Australia was in 1991 for the 470 World Championship in Brisbane," recounts Kovalenko, who now lives in the Fairlight district of Sydney, just inland from Manly. "It was a fantastic time. We lost the Worlds - we were second, but it was okay. I was really impressed by the country -unique conditions for sailing, but most of all by the people: friendly, open, easy. I have lived in Australia for 12 years and I am impressed every day. I can meet people on the street, as soon as you meet their eyes you know - they say 'good day - how are you?' And it is not just me. If you meet the eyes in other countries they hide their eyes. In Australia, there is contact, they talk to you."

Following his team's double 470 gold at the Sydney Games, Kovalenko was appointed Head Coach, but his speciality remains the 470, a class he ardently defends. "To be top in 470 you have to be very special, you need unique abilities and then you build your skills. If you look at all the top coaches in the world, of the top 50 half of them work in the 470. The boat is perfect, but the family, the people, the coaches, the athletes, they are so brilliant. In the Finn maybe three are good. In the Laser maybe eight of them are good. In the Star a lot of them are stars, but not all of them are good. In the 470 to be good, if you are top 15 in the world, you are almost an Olympic medallist."

The 470 is the hardest Olympic sailing medal to win? "Oh yes. This is a university of sailing. If you are good in the 470, you are good in all classes."

James Boyd (The Daily Sail)
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