With the long-awaited 2020 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony kicking off at midday (BST) today, I caught up with Scottish sailor Luke Patience from his Tokyo hotel room to discuss the making of an Olympian.
The debate of nature vs nurture - whether inherited and genetic traits or your environment plays the greater role in shaping you - has long troubled us, as often overthinking human beings. Why am I the way I am? Who would I be, if things were different; if I was born into a different family, if my health was different, if I did a different job, if I had never met that person who had such a formative effect on me. Biological psychology vs Behaviourism, a healthy diet and exercise vs strong genes; it’s a debate that has divided scientists for decades, although now most agree that both factors play a critical role, and interact with each other throughout life to shape us into the unique individuals that we are.
For Olympic silver medallist Luke Patience, sailing is in both his nature and his nurture. I chatted to him via video call, as he sat in his hotel room in Tokyo, awaiting the start of the postponed 2020 Olympic Games. “All my ancestors, from both my mother and my father’s sides of the family, were fishermen and lifeboatmen in Scotland. So sailing on boats is in the blood, as far back as we can find. The Moray Firth was the bread and butter of survival for my dad’s side, and my mother hailed from Broughty Ferry. They would fish from and sail massive boats called Zulus - huge, heavy, 70ft long wooden boats, with wooden masts and canvas lug sails. The thing was, if you were the fastest skipper, you’d get to the fish first, you’d get the best catch, and then you’d get back to the shore the fastest. If you could sail and navigate well, you would get the best price for your fish. As a sailor, I’m just doing the same thing minus the fish; trying to get out there and back faster than everyone else, making a living, and loving it. These skill sets of being capable seamen run in the family. On my mother’s side, where everyone was involved with life boating, we had my great grandfather Jimmy Coull; he was awarded many medals for bravery, for the rescues he made of people who were out at sea in distress, and of boats that had run aground. So I’m not even the first medallist. It’s very much in my blood. It’s who we are.”
Luke was born in Aberdeen in 1984. His family were far from affluent and had, in his own words, “next to nothing”, but he recalls his childhood fondly; due, primarily, to the way his parents raised him and his fierce love for Scotland. “My father always brought me up to know where I’m from, to know your roots. He’s got so much soul, and he instilled that in me. I love Scotland. I love it.”
The ancestral pull of the ocean was no less forceful in Luke than it was upon his forebears, and it wasn’t long before he was tentatively setting sail as a young boy. While the ocean was familiar territory, it wasn’t comfortable territory. I asked him which, if any, incident in his sailing career to date had been most terrifying and - despite tales of Great White Sharks, sailing through lightning storms, monstrous waves and heart-in-mouth close calls - it was a childhood racing event that sprung to mind.
“It seems like nothing now, this childhood memory, and I was totally fine but it’s stuck with me to this day. I was probably 9 years old, doing some sailing in a wee boat in Stonehaven on the North East coast of Scotland. There was a strong North Easterly, the waves were crashing and it was really difficult to get my boat out through the surf to race. I was new to it, and I was just too scared, seeing these huge waves pounding down onto the rocky beach. It just felt so extreme. My dad was being great, reassuring me and offering to help push me out - I remember him saying “I’ll be here in the water with you, you’re OK” but I was just too feart. And I regretted it my whole life. Even now, I wish I’d done it. But it set me up to be braver; these days I tell myself “come on mate, I’m not having another Stonehaven.”
And that’s what Luke did. He was a sporty child, enjoying tennis, gymnastics and sailing among other sports - but it was sailing which truly captivated him. Sailing is regarded as one of the most expensive sports - and that’s especially true at the elite level- but Luke had fallen head over heels in love with it. “It’s the freedom. There are no lines in the water; you carve them out yourself. It’s very creative, the process of carving out what you believe is the best path from A to B and I just love that. Sailing a wee boat on your own, you have a lot of responsibility. I call my boat my horse, all my life I’ve called my boat a water horse. She has a life and a mind of her own. Mother nature is my engine. The adventure gripped me, and it still grips me.” At 10 years old, Luke sat and watched the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta. “I was instantly hooked. I was obsessed. I wanted to know what that felt like, when I saw men crying on the podiums because they had won, or crying because they had lost. I was inspired by that level of emotion, the good and the bad, and I wanted to feel it.
"So sailing had taken me, and now the Olympics had taken me. We were broke; we lived in a caravan, with no money to our name. Some people suggest that you need money to succeed in sport. Here I am, at my 3rd Olympics, in a very expensive sport, and I’m here because I desperately wanted it to happen and nobody said that I couldn’t do it. There will always be kids more privileged than others, but if the excitement and passion is there, there’s a way - I am only here for one reason; it’s because nobody told me I couldn’t.”
Luke’s passion for what he does, and why he does it, is luminously evident. He’s a very eloquent chap, and extraordinarily humble for someone with an Olympic medal to his name and potentially space for another over the coming days. He has travelled the world with sailing; the GB sailing team spend many months in the host country during each 4-year Olympiad, familiarising themselves with the climate and training in the unique conditions presented to them in each of the corners of the globe. His calm, considered speech becomes fiery with passion (and, much to my delight as a fellow Scot, peppered with old Scots words, phrases, and what I like to call ‘passion swears’) when he talks of the places he’s been and the things he’s done with his water horse. “Even tonight, as we travelled back to our hotel over the water from our training session, I thought to myself, my God. Here I am, the sun is setting, there’s Mount Fuji. There are sharks and dolphins around us. I’ve seen some amazing things from the ocean. My God, I’ve seen some sights in my time.”
It’s easy to assume that a professional elite sportsperson such as Luke is some kind of superhuman. It’s in the name; he’s an Olympian. In ancient Greek mythology, the Olympians were a race of immortal deities, so named as they dwelled on Mount Olympus; Gods and Goddesses who had gained their supremacy in a decade-long war of Gods. They were, and still are, the strongest, the most fearless, worshipped and revered among us mortals. As we sit and watch elite sport, from the comfort of our sofas, it’s easy to feel detached from the beings before us; like we are a different type of species to them. Like they must have a natural gift that we don’t possess, or were always destined to land on this most public of stages and be showered in glory, and fame, and wealth. And that’s just not the case; for, as I have delved (and have lived, due to my betrothal to and my mothering of the child of an Olympian myself) into the behind-the-scenes territory of Olympians, I’ve seen first-hand how much utter graft, pain, and often desolation comes before, during and after these moments of glory. There’s no golden ticket to the podium, no way of fast tracking the process. And that process often involves huge sacrifice; years and often decades of exhausting, painful training for 6 or 7 full days a week, strict nutrition, physiotherapy and conditioning schedules, no drinking, no partying, very few holidays. The mental load of competing with and against your friends, colleagues and teammates, for they are one and the same. The extensive time spent away from home, loved ones, family. My partner had to leave me and our newborn daughter in hospital the day after she was born, to go on a training camp, and he missed her first birthday. Some of his teammates have missed the births of their children altogether. No exceptions are made. It is a tough life, all things considered, and there’s not a hefty pay package for most athletes either. The fuel comes from within; and without those incredible individuals, there would be no Olympics for us all to enjoy as spectators.
And so, that same Olympic journey began for Luke. He was soon sailing and competing at a Junior level, keeping his dream close to his heart, but it wasn’t until he watched the Sydney Olympics at the age of 13 that he announced to his family that he was going to go to the Olympics himself. His father, a passionate sailor himself, did all that he could to support this, but a hard 9 years of disappointment followed - as it is for most sportspeople, a lot of losing came before the winning. He put himself under a lot of pressure as a teenager to achieve, driven by his burning desire to sail well, better than anyone else, and to make it to the Olympics. It wasn’t a gift from the Gods, or financial advantage, or luck that brought him to the London Olympics in 2012; it was passion, and graft. And, as he stepped onto the podium with teammate Stuart Bithell to collect their silver medal, he had a realisation. “Funnily enough, it’s never enough. You can win, and you think that will bring you satisfaction and happiness, and it does for a time. And then you remember that you’re Luke, or whoever you are, and off you go again in pursuit of the next challenge. There’s a wave that you ride on for a while, then you come back down the other side. A medal won’t change who you are or change your life, but it’s a wonderful endeavour to try to achieve. I think if I’d have won gold I might have been in a worse place today - silver allowed me to push on, it re-lit a fire in my belly.” And so push on he did. For another 4 years he toiled, training out in Rio for over 200 days in total in sometimes treacherous waters, in the searing heat and the shadow of Sugarloaf mountain. On the definitive day, he came 5th; a heartbreaking position for any Olympic finalist, so tantalisingly close to medalling. “You feel like a failure. You know nobody else thinks that - your teammates, team GB, your friends and family are all saying ‘what an achievement’ but it’s not good enough. And that’s when you feel most lonely. As an athlete, that’s the lowest and loneliest point; because nobody can understand how you, yourself, feel in that moment.”
After Rio, Luke was tired. Like the vast majority of athletes, he had a big decision to make; did he have it in him to do another 4 years, in pursuit of Olympic glory once again? The short answer, obviously, was yes. His love for sailing was undiminished, and if he was going to sail, he may as well strive for the Olympics once again. And so he trained; day in, day out, visiting Tokyo on a number of occasions to train. And then came an obstacle which none of us saw coming; Covid. Luke, along with most professional sportspeople, was given a Sporting Exemption allowing him to train and travel, to a certain extent, but he - like a lot of us - spent a lot of time on Zoom talking with his team. I asked him what impact the year’s delay has had on his Olympic experience. “The physical act of sailing is easy to stop for a while, because the muscle memory that I have built over 2 decades remains, despite not being used as frequently as it was pre-Covid. But a lot of what we do is development of our equipment. Our boats are similar to Formula 1 cars; we tweak tiny things, focused on the percentages and on miniscule improvements, and that ground to a halt - because the industries that we needed to do that had been shut down, as non-essential services. So while it felt strange to not be able to do our day jobs as normal, I was afforded the bandwidth to think about myself a little; to be a selfish athlete. I realised I’m knackered, and that there were lots of things I’d like to work on for myself as a human being. I became more mindful and spent a lot of time on visualisation - visualising winning and achieving and how to get there. I was overrun with a list of practical things to get done, and lockdown gave me that time to get on top of things. I switched off from being an Olympian and had some time being myself again. I went home to Tiree on the West coast of Scotland and lived the island life, spear fishing, seeing family and friends, lived and breathed the Scottish air. That time has been a blessing in disguise for me.
Curious to learn more about the human being behind the Olympian, I ask what else he’s into aside from sailing. Reaching off camera for a second, Luke produces a bottle of Benrinnes 15-year old - one of his extensive collection of whisky. “It’s a beautiful clean Speyside whisky”, he says, removing the stopper and inhaling deeply. “It reminds me of home - cosy Christmas in Tyree. Those memories will probably be replaced now - it will remind me of Tokyo and this time.” I ask why that bottle was the chosen one, to bring with him all that way, from Scotland to Tokyo. “Because I like it”, he answers, holding it out at arms length to consider it as it glugs merrily in his hand. “Look at that, it’s half gone already and we haven’t even started - don’t worry, I’ve been sharing it with pals!”
And if that doesn’t sum up this man, I don’t know what does. He does it because he likes it, pure and simple. Passion, love, toil and heartbreak, and all the glory that comes with it; it’s in his blood, and it’s what was nurtured in him since day one. I ask how he’s feeling as his first race looms. “I’m still a young guy but I definitely feel a difference in my perspective as a relatively older athlete. I competed in London with so much heart, so much passion, racing with intuition. I had nothing to lose - the risks I took trying to win were definitely a younger man's risk. I raced like there was no such thing as losing. As you get older you get a bit more measured and you start to ask ‘but what if I’m wrong?’. Perhaps after Rio, in this Olympiad, I’m a little safer. I can win, but it’s a harder fought win from that place of safety and it’s not as brave as when I was younger. I’ve had a long journey and I know what I’m about to embark on here in Tokyo. I know the battle ahead, I know what will be required, and I can keep quite a level head. That’s a blessing and a curse; I need to keep fuelling the fire to keep the intuitive decisions coming, but smart decision making is at the crux of what we do in this sport and I trust myself now. The more decisions you make, the better you get at making them. Experience has brought me to this sweet spot; I’ve done it, day in and day out, for two decades now and I’m hoping that the byproduct of all that is that this will be my cleanest Olympics yet.”
I asked Luke if he feels much pressure, knowing that he’s one of Scotland’s top hopes for an Olympic medal this summer. “I don’t feel it as pressure, I feel it as strength. Being a sportsperson is so lonely, and I feel like the odd one out a lot of the time - I’m not a functioning member of society or community, I’m doing weird things with weird working hours all over the world. I greatly miss Scotland, and that’s the thing that’s ground me down over the years with regards to the lifestyle. I love every minute of it, I love travelling the world, being footloose and fancy free and I’ve met some great people along the way - I just desperately miss Scotland. Often I just think, “Take me home”. That’s my biggest sacrifice, not being in Scotland. So when the Olympics roll around, and I know the Scottish and British people are watching and rooting for me, that’s when I don’t feel lonely any more. I feel like everyone is with me. Knowing that the whole nation is behind me is the most precious thing. I’m so fortunate. So, give me the pressure - f*****g bring it on”, he laughs, face cracking into a smile as the Scottish passion swears flow freely. “Give me the crowds, give me the noise, screaming and yelling - I want to hear you all the way from over here in Japan.”
Luke has big plans post-Olympics; both for himself, and for others. It’s not my place to tell you of these things just yet; but watch this space; he’s got a lot more to teach us about the meaning and purpose of adventure.
You can watch Luke’s first race on Wednesday 28th July on BBC iPlayer (Men's Two Person Dinghy - 470 - Race 01) - or live, if you’re up at an ungodly hour during the night. Let’s make sure he can hear us.