Jo Aleh devoted 12 years of her life to sailing a dinghy day-in, day-out, in her quest for Olympic glory.
When she walked away from her boat, exhausted but clutching gold and silver Olympic medals, she tried to find her next big challenge behind a desk.
But the transition into the corporate world hasn’t completely worked. And she’s found herself drawn back to the ocean – this time, as a sailing coach.
“I haven’t managed to switch over to normal life,” the 32-year-old says. “It didn’t stick well enough.”
She’s been working in the Auckland office of professional services firm Ernst & Young for the past year, in the area of performance improvement. The opportunity came through the company’s global campaign to help athletes transition into the workforce.
“The hardest thing I found outside sport was the struggle to find where your heart sits. Working with companies and money is not what I’m used to, and it’s hard to find the meaning in it,” she says.
“The passion piece isn’t really there for me. With sport, it’s so clear. It’s purely trying to perform and reach those targets. It’s not about the money or egos; at the end of the day, it’s all about the performance you left out on the water.”
Now Aleh is trying to find her middle ground – working part-time for Ernst & Young, while coaching Kiwi sailors towards their own Olympic dreams. And, at the same time, wanting to make a statement for women coaches.
She has to admit this is far from what she intended to do when she gave up Olympic sailing – having won gold in London 2012 and silver in Rio 2016 in the 470 dinghy with Polly Powrie.
She’d set her sights on sailing around the world in last year’s Volvo Ocean Race, but missed out after trialling with Team Brunel.
“After Rio, I said I’d never coach,” she says. “But when you know so much about Olympic sailing, it’s really nice to give back. Basically it’s the same as what I used to do, in the same world and the same community, but with a whole lot less stress and pressure.”
She’s been dabbling in coaching with different Kiwi crews at international regattas during the year, but is now focused on the two Nacra 17 crews aiming for Tokyo 2020.
The Nacra is the Olympic foiling catamaran sailed by a mixed crew, and New Zealand has two crews ranked in the world’s top 20 – Gemma Jones and Jason Saunders, who narrowly missed out on a medal in Rio, and Liv Mackay and Micah Wilkinson.
Aleh wants to coach these sailors through to Tokyo. “They’re great fun to work with, and all the potential is there,” she says.
“I’m enjoying learning something new. I already know how to get performance out of myself, but trying to encourage or enable others is quite different. I didn’t really want to coach the 470s, because I just knew I’d get frustrated, feeling like I could hop into the boat at any stage.”
Aleh is also on a mission to see more women sailing coaches in this country. “I’d like to open the door and let more of us in,” she says.
Fortunately, Yachting New Zealand see it that way too.
They’ve just taken on a new female coach for the Laser Radial singlehanded women’s dinghy class – American Rosie Chapman, who has coached two world champions and was US Sailing’s national coach of the year last year.
Yachting NZ CEO Dave Abercrombie says they were specifically looking for a woman for the job “because as a sport we don’t have enough women coaches”.
“I don’t think women coaches only have to work with women. I’m absolutely convinced women can coach men, and vice versa, quite effectively,” he says.
“But I believe in some instances women have a greater appreciation of the challenges that women face when they’re sailing. They’re more empathetic. The quality of the coach is the key, but empathy is an enormous piece of that.”
At the same time, Yachting NZ is also carrying out a nationwide research study into female sailing.
Sailing numbers in clubs across the country have grown in the past 12 months by almost eight per cent, and Yachting NZ wants to ensure that the sport keeps girls and young women involved sailing.
The initial driver for this research was the decree that there would be equal participation and medals for women and men in sailing at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“We have a lot of young girls coming through the sport. But we don’t understand why they come to the sport, why they leave it, the challenges that they and their parents face and what we can do to support them to stay in the sport,” Abercrombie says.
“In order to grow sailing, and make it more accessible, fun and relevant, we need to understand these things better.”
This weekend, they will be talking to girls and their parents at the Sir Peter Blake Regatta, the biggest centreboard regatta in Australasia, sailed off Torbay.
Aleh, who has been a role model to young girls in sailing, has no desire to go yachting again – at least in the near future.
“Those four years building to Rio were pretty hard. It took a lot out of me, and I haven’t bounced back from that yet,” she says.
“I don’t have the energy or the desire to be under that pressure again. I watch the sailors sailing and I think that looks like fun, but I’m quite happy being dry. I can switch off at 5pm, without that stress you have. When you’re an athlete you’re always on, you never really turn off.
“But if I choose to do it again, it will be all-in.”
After ending her Olympic sailing days, Polly Powrie is now involved with a different aquatic sport – as the high performance operations manager for Canoe Racing NZ. The old ‘Team Jolly’ crew-mates bump into each other often at Auckland’s hub for elite athletes, AUT Millennium.
Aleh is happy to watch her boyfriend, Dutch sailor Pieter Jan Postma, gunning for his fourth Olympics in the Finn class. He will be spending his summer training in Auckland.
It’s likely to be the last time the Finn is sailed at the Olympics, after almost 50 years. Earlier this month it was controversially dropped from the list of 10 sailing events at the 2024 Paris Olympics, and replaced with a mixed two-person offshore keelboat.
Aleh had a voice at the World Sailing AGM in Florida where the decision was made – as one of five members of the sport’s Athletes’ Commission.
“The sport has to become gender equal at the Olympics. No one is ever completely happy with change, but it opens up so many opportunities,” she says.
“The hard thing about representing athletes at that level is that you can’t keep everyone happy. Are you representing the athletes who are there now or those who will be there in 10 years? It can be a bit of a thankless task, but that’s governance.”
Aleh is determined not to give up on corporate life, and she’s grateful Ernst & Young have been so understanding and flexible about her decision to spend more time on the water.
“I’ve been surprised at how wide-thinking people outside the sporting world they can be,” Aleh says. “They’re good at looking after their people, respecting them. In sport, you’re sometimes a bit more disposable.”