BREAKING NEWS: New Zealand Olympic sailor Erica Dawson has broken her leg during a sailing accident in Australia, four weeks out from the Tokyo Olympics. 

A serious training accident may rule Kiwi sailor Erica Dawson out of competing at the Tokyo Olympics, after falling off her foiling cat during a sailing session in Mooloolaba. But she’s still determined to try to be on the start line in Enoshima on July 28. 

Dawson broke her leg on Tuesday while she and her skipper, Micah Wilkinson, were training on their Nacra 17 catamaran. They’ve been working alongside the Australian Olympic crew in the build-up to Tokyo.

She fell off the boat and was hit by the rudder, breaking her fibula.

“There have been many tears,” she wrote on her Instagram page today. “But also managed many laughs despite the situation we are in. 

“I will do my absolute best for a speedy recovery to be on that start line with Micah and come out stronger.”

It’s the first Olympics for both Dawson and Wilkinson, who only started sailing together two years ago. 

Yachting New Zealand are optimistic that Dawson will be able to recover in time to race at the Olympics. They are making sure she is getting “all the right support and equipment” she needs.

At this point, Dawson will stay on the Sunshine Coast. Another sailor may fly to Australia to train with Wilkinson in the meantime. 

This week, LockerRoom profiled Dawson’s sailing partnership with Wilkinson in our Olympic Bonds series:

Early on in their relationship – which wasn’t really that long ago – Micah Wilkinson was astounded by just how tough and determined Erica Dawson could be.  

At the end of a day on the Hauraki Gulf, trying to master their fast and furious boat – the Nacra 17 foiling catamaran – Wilkinson would watch in horror as Dawson removed her bloodied gloves.

“It was our first month together, back in the New Zealand winter of 2019, and Erica would come off the water with her hands bleeding. And she wouldn’t have said a word all day about it,” Wilkinson says.

“She’d peel her glove off, and I feel like half her hand would come off with it.”

“Hey!” interrupts Dawson, sitting next to Wilkinson in their MIQ hotel. “That’s a bit of an exaggeration.”

“It’s not far off though,” he counters. “Seriously.”

It’s no surprise that Dawson’s hands were shredded in those early days, not used to grappling with the spider’s web of ropes on the Nacra – a complex, technical beast. It’s Dawson’s job to do most of the sail trimming on board, and she has also to be agile on her feet, running up and down the side of the boat while it’s up on the foils, trying to keep it flying level.

Today her hands are calloused and tough. She’s stronger too.

Both sailors can agree this gory tale sums up one of the strengths in their partnership – as a two-handed crew who got together only nine months before they won the Olympic spot in Tokyo, and who’ve been teaching each other as they go ever since.

Micah Wilkinson and Erica Dawson at the announcement of their Olympic selection in Auckland. Photo: Getty Images. 

When Wilkinson first asked Dawson if she’d like to crew for him, she thought it was all “a bit weird”.

A successful dinghy and skiff sailor, she’d always been at the helm. “At first I was like ‘I’ve never crewed before, I need to think about this’,” she says.

Wilkinson, on the other hand, had been sailing as crew for four years. But he didn’t know all the technical ins and outs of steering the boat.

So that’s where they’ve been able to help each other, first to tame the flying cat, and then reach the Olympics.

“For Erica to step into the crewing role without having done it before wasn’t easy. It’s a highly physical and demanding role,” Wilkinson, 25, says. “And I had a few technical challenges with the steering.

“But over the last two years we’ve managed to get the most out of all the sailing we’ve done because we’re learning off each other, teaching each other at the same time.

“It’s probably one of our biggest strengths on the big, heavy sea days, I know exactly what she’s going through.”

The friendship that’s developed off the water has been another key to their success.

“I know a lot of people say you don’t have to be friends to make it work,” 26-year-old Dawson says. “But to me, it’s really important. I have to enjoy who I’m sailing with, and respect who they are as a person.

“I know I wouldn’t do it if we didn’t get along as well on the water as we do off it.”

Erica Dawson and Micah Wilkinson sailing in the 2021 Oceanbridge regatta on the Hauraki Gulf. Photo: Yachting NZ. 

Obviously, they share a passion for the ocean. Last year, when Covid-19 forced them to stay home for the winter, they got into wing foiling and surfing together.

Wilkinson, who hails from Cambridge, has been trying to get Dawson interested in his other passion, motor racing – in particular, Formula One. “But it’s just not me – that’s one thing we can’t bond over,” she says.

“Food is my thing, so I’m always trying to get Micah to push his boundaries of what he’s comfortable eating.”

Her skipper laughs. “I’ve gone from very simple, kind of unhealthy foods that I love, to expanding my culinary horizons,” he says.

It’s about now that there’s a knock on the hotel door, and Wilkinson gets up and has his daily temperature check.

At the time of this Zoom call, they’re almost at the end of a fortnight’s stint in quarantine, after Dawson went to Bermuda, as one of the first New Zealand women to be part of the Sail GP series, then met up with Wilkinson in Spain to finally race again in a Nacra 17 fleet.

They spent their downtime watching old footage of Olympic races, holding mock protests with their coach, Olympic gold medallist Jo Aleh, as the judge. And riding a Watt bike in their steamed-up hotel bathrooms, wearing tracksuits and hoodies trying to replicate the heat and humidity of Tokyo.

They’ve also been playing a lot of cards together – 500 is their game of choice. Aleh and Dawson’s sailor boyfriend, Matt Steven, also in MIQ, made up their four players in the online games.

What was revealing, Wilkinson says, was discovering the way he and Dawson play cards is very much the way they sail their boat.

“We’ve seen that I’m very punchy with the betting and the calling – I put some big plays out there, for big wins and big losses. And Erica just trucks along the middle. And that’s exactly how we are on the boat,” he says.

“We have two very different sailing styles and sailing personalities, which complement each other well. I use the strength of making big plays, while Erica is rock solid. She knows the game really well.”

Erica Dawson was the NZ champion in the 49erFX skiff in 2018 before switching to the Nacra 17. Photo: Joshua Cormack/Yachting NZ

They complement each other, too, in their work off the water. Wilkinson looks after the boat, while Dawson is in charge of logistics, getting them around the world.

They’ve christened their racing boat for Tokyo ‘Little Charger’ – a name with a special connection to them.

“We’re both reasonably vertically challenged; we’re not the biggest team out there,” Wilkinson says.  “So when we started sailing together, we gave 100 percent to everything, and we got known as the Little Chargers.”

Dawson and Wilkinson have since left MIQ, spent a week at home, and are now in Mooloolaba, on Australia’s Sunshine Coast, training with the Australian Olympic duo of Jason Waterhouse and Lisa Darmanin – who won silver in the Nacra at the 2016 Rio Games.

The two crews spent time together at the end of last year, and in the three regattas they’ve sailed in since, the Kiwis and Aussies have always finished within two points of each other.

“You can tell we’ve been training together,” Dawson says. “We’re great friends now; we always have good banter. And they’re big Formula One fans.”

In their latest regatta in Satander, Spain, against 17 international crews, Dawson and Wilkinson finished second – pipped by the Australians by a single point. That’s given them a huge dose of confidence for Tokyo.

“We saw we were on the right track. We’re in the ballpark,” Wilkinson says. They were 19th in the 2019 world champs in Auckland, and seventh in the 2020 worlds in Melbourne. “But we still have a way to go.”

Erica Dawson and Micah Wilkinson sailing ‘Little Charger’ on Tutukaka Harbour. Photo: Joshua McCormack/Yachting NZ

Now, there’s just a month to go before Dawson and Wilkinson line up on Enoshima Yacht Harbour in Fujisawa City. There’s a touch of the incredible about it for Dawson.

“At the beginning of 2019, when our other sailing partnerships ended, probably neither of us thought that Tokyo would ever really happen, to be honest,” she says. “Just jumping into it, trusting each other and giving it everything has paid off.

“I’m very thankful to Micah for believing in me.”

Wilkinson is just as grateful to Dawson. “To find this partnership and have it work so well and have so much trust in each other is pretty special,” he says.

“Two years we’ve been sailing together now, and it’s been full-on, no low moments, just flat out 100 percent pushing the whole time. It’s a really cool campaign to be part of.

“Now we’re looking forward to charging on with it.”

* The Olympic Bonds series highlights Tokyo-bound athletes and a special person who’s helped them to get there. We started the series with shotput legend Dame Valerie Adams and her physio, Lou Johnson; part two featured double gold paddler Lisa Carrington and her coach, Gordon Walker.  And new BMX medal hope Rebecca Petch and her power coach, Shaun Paterson, were the third duo in our series.

Suzanne McFadden, the 2021 Voyager Media Awards Sports Journalist of the Year, founded LockerRoom, dedicated to women's sport.

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