Good news from Olympic medallist’s bad break
A broken foot threatened to derail sailor Alex Maloney's second Olympic campaign. But she's back on track, with a little help from her brother and his America's Cup team-mates.
From now on, Alex Maloney will always seek a second opinion.
Without it, the Rio Olympics sailing silver medallist saw her dream of winning gold in Tokyo almost shatter with one traumatic snap.
One bad wave, and one foot wrong, on the eve of the 49erFX world championships in Geelong and the 28-year-old Aucklander was facing four months off the water. It came just as she and long-time sailing partner Molly Meech were trying to gain selection for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
But when she returned home, dejected with her left leg in a cast, she was persuaded to see medical experts here – who found her foot was fractured in a different place and cut her recovery time by half.
Now Maloney is back on track towards the new Tokyo Olympics in July 2021.
After spending lockdown boosting her fitness with the help of her brother, Andy - a Team New Zealand grinder and Tokyo Olympic prospect – Maloney is now on the water and focused on giving everything she’s got to winning Olympic gold in the women's skiff.
And with no overseas regattas and no stiff opposition, Maloney and Meech are approaching it in a different way – with the help of some players in the 2021 America’s Cup.
'But I can still race, can't I?'
Last summer is one Maloney would probably like to forget.
In December, she and Meech were hoping to regain the world 49er FX title they won back in 2013, this time on their home waters, the Waitemata Harbour. They’d topped the Oceania championships the week before, but ended up disappointed with a sixth place, battling in intense conditions.
Maloney and Meech then headed to Melbourne in February for the 2020 worlds with stronger expectations.
“We felt like we were ready; we felt really good as a team,” Maloney explains. “We came second in the pre-worlds regatta the week before, and it felt like it was going to be our favourite conditions – really shifty with flat water.”
Then she recalls the moment it will went pear-shaped.
“We were in our last training race before the worlds. It was quite a short course; all the girls were really close together, and we under-laid the starboard layline and had to do two quick tacks,” she says.
“We just hit a bad wave... and basically my foot had nowhere to go. It felt like a twinge – not too painful, but it just didn’t feel quite right.”
Back on land, Maloney iced her foot, but when the pain lingered, her team took her to hospital for an x-ray.
She was told she had a fracture on the joint surface of a bone in her foot. Maloney was stunned.
“They delivered the news, and the doctor didn’t realise why I was pretty upset,” she says. “And our physio said: ‘Just give her a moment’, but he was already putting me in a half cast. The plaster was coming on, and I was like, ‘But I can still race, can’t I?’ And he said: ‘No you can’t darling’. I didn’t really have a chance.”
Maloney and Meech were forced to withdraw from the worlds, and with the news that such an injury could take four months - or longer - to heal, their hopes of returning to the Olympics, and go one better than the silver they won in Rio four years ago, were thrown up in the air.
“It would have been harder to earn selection because I wouldn’t have been able to race in regattas like Palma [Spain] and the Japan World Cup event. I think having the faith of the sailing team and the NZOC would have been a lot trickier,” Maloney says.
But when she went to specialists in Auckland for a second opinion, Maloney was told the fracture was actually on the side of her foot, and her recovery time dropped to six to nine weeks. “It was such great news – it really helped us,” she says.
So much so, that the pair were officially selected in the New Zealand sailing team in March – with reigning Olympic 49er champions Peter Burling and Blair Tuke, Nacra 17 newcomers Micah Wilkinson and Erica Dawson, and Molly’s brother, Rio Laser bronze medallist Sam Meech.
Maloney and Meech were quickly back on their skiff, and spent four days sailing off the Royal Akarana Yacht Club, ready to fly out to Spain for the Princes Sofia regatta in Palma de Mallorca. Then all their plans were put on ice again, as Covid-19 forced the world into lockdown.
When the Tokyo Olympics were postponed for 12 months, Maloney and Meech were disappointed, but relieved to learn their selection would still stand.
Maloney moved in with her brother, Andy, for lockdown in Auckland. “Our parents were meant to spend most of this year in Japan and Europe, so they-d rented out our family home - and had to live on their boat,” Maloney laughs. “Andy was the good older brother and took me in.”
It turned out to be a blessing. Andy Maloney was also determined to stay in shape - a cyclor in Team NZ’s 2017 America’s Cup victory, he's still in the team for next summer’s Cup in Auckland. And he's also trying to win the sole Finn spot for New Zealand at the Tokyo Olympics.
The trouble is, he’s up against his good friend and fellow Team NZ sailor, Josh Junior. Rather than treat each other as rivals, the pair train together and share information with the aim that one of them will win Olympic gold. It’s working so far: they're both among the best in the world.
Andy is “intrinsically motivated” to be fit, his sister says. “Most Saturdays he was on the grinding machine, and I was on the watt bike, and we’d work out for three hours. It was so good having him encouraging and motivating me, and my fitness increased pretty quickly.
“I really love both him and Josh, but it would be really special if I could compete at the Olympics alongside my brother. Especially since he narrowly missed out on the last two Olympics."
A rare Kiwi winter
Lockdown meant Maloney and Meech went eight weeks without seeing each other in person; the longest they've been apart, Maloney reckons, since they first teamed up in 2012.
“We talked to each other a few times a week, and with our coach [former Olympic sailor Nathan Handley], and it was important to keep up that familiarity. We were meant to be in Europe for six weeks, and we would have been in Japan right now,” Maloney says.
They were back sailing together again at Level 2, but it still felt odd. It was the first time since American-born Maloney was 13 that she hasn’t been at a sailing regatta overseas during the New Zealand winter.
Without their usual overseas training partners, they’ve been sailing with up-and-comer Kiwi 49erFX sailors Olivia Hobbs and Crystal Sun (former world champions in their own right, winning the 29er female world title in 2018).
“They’re in their early 20s and really enthusiastic and dedicated,” Maloney says. “It’s really beneficial for Molly and I to have that solid training partner so it’s been really cool getting them going consistently.”
Two weeks ago, they sailed together in the Tutukaka Harbour, where the ocean swell and chop closely resembles the conditions in Enoshima, the Olympic venue.
The Tokyo postponement has had another silver lining for Maloney. It’s meant she’s been able to spend time sailing other boats.
“We can get really focused on our Olympic class, and it kind of gets repetitive,” she says.
Once a month, the Olympic sailors join forces with some of Team NZ’s crew and they go fleet racing in the Royal New Zealand Yacht Squadron’s Elliott 7 keelboats. Maloney has been paired with Team NZ tactics wizard Ray Davies.
“I’ve learned so much from Ray,” says Maloney, who’s the skipper on board. “His communication is amazing – he highlights how clearly and composed you can speak on boats.”
Davies has also enjoyed the opportunity and is equally impressed with Maloney.
“We've been able to pass on some experience to the [Olympic] sailors and of course we're all always learning as well,” the 17-year Team NZ veteran says.
“What’s impressed me about Alex is her pure love for the sport. She is just so happy to be out on the water and trying to improve each time she’s out. She does love to talk… and she critiques each race, so it’s no surprise she’s reached the level of success that she has.”
Maloney is excited thinking about the Olympics this time next year. She’s prepared for it to look quite different than the Rio Games. “But I’m just happy for it to go ahead and that we get to compete again," she says.
“We have to be prepared for the Olympics to potentially be our first races back. That would be quite weird.
“But I think everyone’s boat handling will be very good, because that’s all we’ve been able to do. I already feel like our gybes and our tacks have never been better.”