On the Crest of a Wave

As anticipation of the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney mounts, The World of English speaks with sailing champion Mateusz Kusznierewicz about his life, sailing, and of course, English.

Mateusz Kusznierewicz is only twenty-four years old and lives a life envied by many people. He travels the world, spends most of his time 'messing about in boats' and, not least, when we in Poland are suffering from the frozen winter he' s enjoying a tropical Australian summer! And all this doesn't look like it's going to end soon. Since his victory at the last Olympics, Mateusz has established himself as one of the best yachtsmen in the world.

During a conference of the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) on 89 November 1999, Kusznierewicz was nominated" Best Sailor of the Year" in every class of sailing. What further greatness can we expect in next year' s Olympics?

The Polish sailing champion' s connections with boats and the water date back to before he was even born." My parents got married on a yacht in the Mazurian Lakes," he says." We went there for every holiday since I was three years old, so every year there was some sailing in my life." Mateusz admits he got his passion for sailing from his parents. When he was nine, they took him to a sailing camp at Zalew ZegrzyƄski. " From the first instant I loved it and it became part of my life," he says, and adds that sailing is still one of his biggest pleasures.

Athlete and engineer

As an allround sportsman, Mateusz also enjoys tennis, golf, swimming, windsurfing, skiing and ice hockey, but maintains that sailing will always be his favourite." I love sailing because I' m good at it and I get results which prove I do the right thing. I also love sailing because it' s a sport you can do with a passion and in the open air, close to nature." What particularly appeals to him is that a good sailor must be both an athlete and an engineer." It' s not a sport in which you can be brutal," he says. For Kusznierewicz sailing is very different from most other sports. As a participant in the Finn class (singlehanded sailing in a 4.5metrelong boat), he views it as a sport in which victory depends on the individual." I do everything alone and only I decide what to do."

This knowledge of what to do comes from both Mateusz' s long experience and the experience of his coaches, one of whom is his father." I decided not to have just one coach," he explains." I found out that in sport or any other activity or work you pursue in your life, you have to ask many specialists in that field and take something you need from each of them." His father coaches him on the technical side of sailing and he has other coaches who look after his fitness and general sailing skills." And there is my girlfriend who is my personal manager. She helps me in sponsoring and business stuff."

Distant oceans

One of the reasons why Mateusz travels so much is the limited possibility of training in Poland. The sailing season in Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Spain is three or four months longer than in Poland, and so makes them far better places for Polish teams to practise." I wouldn' t achieve such good results if I stayed and exercised only in Poland," explains the champion. " You have to practise on big waves, waters, oceans, seas like the Mediterranean, the Atlantic Ocean or down in Australia and New Zealand. It' s really, really different and probably that' s why sailing in Poland has improved so much lately. We spend 200 days a year outside Poland."

But things in Poland are far better than they were in the communist past." I remember stories which my older friends told me, that in the 1970s and even 80s they could not sail on the Baltic even near the shore because it was banned by the authorities," says the champion. Kusznierewicz' s sailing team also enjoys financial support from the Polish Yachting Association and the Polish Olympic Committee." I' m sure that if those people in the 70s had the money that we have now, they would have been champions as well."

Lightning strikes

No matter how much a sailor trains, nothing can prepare him for disaster except experience. Mateusz has been in a few tough situations, often in weather conditions never experienced in Poland. In 1994 he took part in the World Championship Regatta in New Zealand. There was a very strong wind and, unlike the experienced locals, Mateusz found himself quite unable to cope with the rough weather." I capsized many times," he remembers." A couple of times I was under the water for a long time and I had to get back to my boat ... I lost a lot of energy and did not finish the race." Another story he tells is of a regatta in Sydney two years ago when a thunderstorm struck there is nowhere to shelter when you' re at sea." The race officer decided we should turn back because it was too risky. I didn' t have an accident, but my colleagues did. Lightning struck the Ukranian team' s mast and their boat capsized and sank. The team was fine, though, and very quickly a rescue boat picked them up. It was quite tough that day, I must admit."

Communicative approach

If it were not for the long periods of time Mateusz spends abroad, his English, along with his sailing abilities, would not be at the level it is today. At school in Poland he never had lessons, and when his parents sent him to private classes at the age of ten he used to run away from them." Only when I started travelling around the world, did my English improve," he says," but three or four years ago I still wasn' t very good. The crucial moment came when I spent two months at the turn of 1995/6 in New Zealand preparing for the Olympics in Atlanta." The Polish sailor lived in a flat with a Swede, a Dutchman, an American and two Australians." It was not easy for me, but after that stay I noticed a great improvement, and from that moment on, I have been speaking only English while travelling." But he admits that, though this 'communicative approach' to learning English helped him, he still has big problems with grammar." When it comes to an English grammar test I' ve got real troubles," he laughs. However, Mateusz strongly believes his knowledge of English has helped his career." I know a lot of people who have travelled around the world and couldn' t speak English. They couldn' t communicate and they did not move forward, did not succeed."

So other than a knowledge of English, what would the champion suggest we do to live a life like his to spend most of the time on the water, enjoying nature and travelling to distant countries?" Join a sailing club or camp during the summer and try it," he says." All you have to do is find out if you like it and if you want to sail for two or three weeks during your holidays, or if you want to do it more professionally ... There' s no age limit - it' s a sport for everybody."

Monika Jaworska, Barnaby Harward