Jorge Zarif: on the right track for an Olympic medal at Tokyo 2020
Jorge Zarif has worn a few yellow jerseys this year and stood on top of the podium in some major Finn regattas. Gold medals at the Sailing World Cup events in Hyeres and Marseille suggest the young Brazilian is on the right track for an Olympic medal at Tokyo 2020.
Even though he's still only 25 years old, Zarif has been Finn sailing for a decade. He first got in the boat in 2008 at the age of 15 and competed in his first Olympic trials, finishing runner-up. "I only started two weeks before, so it wasn't a proper campaign, but I've been working hard since then." Success came early, with Zarif becoming the Under 21 World Champion in 2009 and the outright World Champion, winner of the prestigious Finn Gold Cup in 2013.
However, Zarif admits that he wasn't the finished article when he won those Worlds. "In 2013, we had a really shifty event in Tallinn, Estonia. I started sailing in a lake where the conditions were really similar, so I was feeling really good that week. I started the championship with 46th in a 10-race event. So I was in a very bad position, but then I won the second race. That was really nice for me. I was never top 10 in a big event before, and then things started to work well for me, and I did a very good series. I won before the medal race, I didn't have to sail the medal race."
Zarif was delighted but he certainly didn't take his early success for granted. "I didn't relax; I won the World's but I wasn't even close to be the best of the world. I think it was a normal step to go two or three steps back in the next year, and then started to sail a little bit better again."
It certainly was two or three steps back in 2014. "Of course I wasn't expecting to win the Worlds again when I was 21, but I was expecting to do top 10 or something close." Instead he finished just 37th in the Santander Worlds of 2014, although he refused to be downhearted. "It was just more motivation to train more and we had the Olympics at home, so motivation was never missing and just gave me more energy to work harder."
Part of that motivation was also a 20th place at London 2012. "I beat only four guys in London, but I was competing with a torn ACL so I had knee surgery after those Games. Also the Star went out of the Games and Bruno Prada, he had just won the bronze medal with Robert Scheidt, and I recovered from the surgery he called me and said, 'Jorge, I am going to the Finn because the Star is out of the Olympics.' Normally nobody trains together in Brazil, because just one guy has the funding. He said, 'You just went to the Olympics and you were 20th. You already went to the Olympcis and if you want go to another Olympics to be 20th again, you can train alone. I don't know if it's going to be me or you, but if we train together I think we can fight for a medal'. And so we started training together. He hired a really good coach, Rafa Trujillo, the Spanish silver medallist, and I started to train four months after my surgery. The next year went really well. In the end, I ended up going to the Olympics but the goal was to medal." Zarif came close but - like fellow Brazilian Robert Scheidt in the Laser - finishing just off the podium in 4th place.
Zarif said his starting just wasn't good enough in Rio. "All the races, I had bad starts. I was always recovering a lot. So when you are in this position and turning the top marks in a bad position, you have to work like double in the downwind, really pumping. The consistency was everything - I had something like two seconds, two thirds, a second last, one 18th, one 19th, and I think this was the biggest problem. I had chances to win bronze in the medal race, but I already lost the opportunity during the series. I made some bad races, like really close to the back, and I think that's what I'm trying to avoid now."
Zarif has recently started working with a new coach, and perhaps this is why he's wearing the yellow jersey on a regular basis. His new coach is none other than Robert Scheidt, one of the all-time greats with five Olympic medals (Rio 2016 was the only Games he attended where he came away empty-handed). "Just to be close to Robert, you already learn a lot. I had the opportunity to train with him a little bit when I was teenager, like 13 or 14, and he was preparing himself for the Games in the Laser, so my father was with him and asked if I could train with him and he agreed. I did a few months training with him and saw his work ethic; nobody was more prepared than him. Now he is teaching me a lot about tactics, for sure he knows a lot more than me. So we are still in the beginning, but I've already learned a few things in the training sessions we've done."
Scheidt would also make a great Finn sailor if he wanted to take it on, Zarif believes. "We had a training session at the end of last year in Sao Paolo with about five or six boats. I lent Robert one of my boats, better than the one I was using. It was windy and he's 15 kilos lighter than me, but then I had to work a lot to beat him. Actually he beat me in two races and I beat him in two races. So it was like an equal score. I was a little bit embarrassed. Next time I'll give him the bad boat for sure!"
Having trained with sailors of Scheidt and Prada's calibre has also been useful for Zarif's adventures in the Star class. He has raced in three Star Sailors League Finals in the Bahamas and has enjoyed his moments of success. "It's much more tactical than the Finn. The angles are really different on the upwind, but I really like to sail the boat. It's really fun if you like classic sailing, and just to be competing against all your idols, it's really nice. The first year I went there, we did really well. We were fourth. In the final race, we had Freddie Loof, a big guy from the Finn class; we had Mateusz [Kusnierewicz], a Finn Olympic Champion and the other one was Mark Mendelblatt, a huge sailor as well. We beat Torben [Grael] and Robert [Scheidt] in the championship; it's really nice to be sailing against people you saw on the TV and people that you look up to."
He enjoys the SSL qualifying format, both as a competitor and a spectator. "It's much more exciting than the normal format we have, and it's harder. You can be very good in the qualifying races, and then have a bad start. Even if you are really far behind the other guys, you still have a chance to win the event. Last year, Paul Goodison wasn't that close to Mark Mendelblatt who won the qualifying. But then Paul won the event overall. It's great that everyone has a chance to win."
Meanwhile, his next focus is on the World Championships coming up in Aarhus, Denmark. Zarif believes he has yet to reach the peak of his career and has high hopes for this season and Tokyo 2020. "I think I am still developing a lot, still learning a lot of things. I am at a good age to learn; physically, technically, I am still not in the top. So I think I have a chance to do well there. First step is qualifying for the Olympics; it's going to be really hard because just eight nations qualify. So probably I have to finish top 8 or top 10 in the Worlds, which is not that simple like people think it is. So that's my focus right now because it's the second most important regatta of this Olympic cycle after the Olympic Games."