Brazil has top Olympic sailors? Who knew?

Robert Scheidt is poised to win another sailing medal for his soccer-crazy country.

Montserret T Diez/EPA
Champions: Brazilian sailors Robert Scheidt (r.) and Bruno Prada won a race in Spain this spring. They’re favored in Beijing.

There’s a wall at the Santo Amaro Yacht Club with plaques to the club’s sailing greats.

Up high are tributes to the men who in the 1960s and 70s won gold medals in the Pan American Games or bronze medals in the Olympics.

Down below, in the space for more recent conquests, the name Robert Scheidt stands out.

His name is on more plaques than all the others put together. For International Sailor of the Year (twice), for Pan American gold (three times) for World Championships (eight times at Laser class, and once at Star class). And of course for his two Olympic gold medals.

By any measure, Mr. Scheidt is one of Brazil’s, and sailing’s, greats.

“Anyone who has gone to three Olympics and won two golds and a silver, been the world champion eight times in Laser, gone to four World Championships with Star and won one and came second in another is outstanding,” says Lars Grael, a friend and former rival of Scheidt who himself won Olympic sailing medals in 1984 and 1988. “Like everyone else who understands sailing, I will tell you that Robert Scheidt is one of a kind.”
Brazil is world famous as the country of soccer, but it is a strange quirk that the Olympic title is the only international competition it has not won.

Their unheralded sailors, meanwhile, have sailed their way to podium after podium, winning more Olympic medals on the water than in any other arena.

“Sailing has brought great glory to Brazil … more than any other sport,” Scheidt said in a recent interview at the Santo Amaro club where he trains. “We can’t ever dream of the day that sailing will rival [soccer], but we can dream of getting a little bit more recognition.”

Brazil’s excellence at soccer boils down to superior technique, agility, and an talent for improvisation. The qualities most valued by sailors are contrasting ones: strength, discipline, and advance planning.

Brazil’s big advantage for breeding sailing stars like Scheidt is the 4,654 miles of coastline that run from the Caribbean in the north to the Atlantic in the south.

The country’s sailors mostly inhabit the colder waters of the south, areas colonized by British, Germans, Italians, Portuguese, all nations with a strong history of seafarers.

Elsewhere, Brazilians love the beach but are afraid of the sea, Scheidt says.

“It seems like people stop on the edge of the water,” he says. “Brazil was discovered by sea, but there’s no culture. There’s a block when it comes to going in the sea.”

Scheidt should know. He won world junior titles at the Laser class for solo sailors and then dominated his adult contemporaries for years. Now he is moving to the two-man Star class and bidding to become the first sailor to win golds at both.

The two classes are very different. Lasers are small boats, 4.23 meters long (13 feet, 10.5 inches) and with a hull weight of exactly 56.7 kilograms (125 pounds).

They are made to the same specifications the world over. In tournaments competitors draw lots to see who gets which boat, ensuring the contest is less about equipment and more about tactics, strength, and experience.

Star, meanwhile, is the oldest class of sailing in the Olympics, and a step up from Laser. The two-handed keelboats are bigger at 6.91 meters (22 feet 8 inches), heavier at around 675 kilograms (1,488 pounds), and sailors need more skill to maneuver them, especially in heavy seas.

“Going from Laser to Star is like going from racing a small car and then moving into a truck,” Scheidt says. “It takes a lot longer to accelerate, it takes a lot longer to brake, it’s bigger, and everything is heavier.”

Scheidt and his teammate Buno Prada have been sailing Star for almost four years and they have already made their mark, winning the World Championship in Portugal last year.

They currently sit sixth in the International Sailing Federation rankings and are one of the favorites to take gold in China.

Scheidt is confident of doing well in China, but he is grounded enough to realize that his achievements are already exceptional and that this is just one more contest.

By moving up to Star, a class where sailors tend to be older than at Laser, he is preparing for more years at the top.

That could be at Star but he is also keen to try his luck in the America’s Cup and the Round the World races. But if that doesn’t happen, a simple Sunday on the reservoir would work just as well.

It won’t bring him fame, but it does bring him peace of mind.

“The sea is a release for me,” he says, summing up the appeal of life on the ocean waves. “When you get on the water, you leave all your problems on land.”

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