After a five-year-break, Olympic gold medallist Jo Aleh is back racing – and aiming for the Paris 2024 Olympics with a new sailing partner, Olympic silver medallist Molly Meech.
Introducing Team Jolly 2.0.
The original Team Jolly – Jo Aleh and Olivia “Polly” Powrie – dominated women’s sailing in New Zealand in the 2010s. The pair won five world championship medals in the 470 dinghy, and Olympic gold at the 2012 London Olympics followed by silver in Rio four years later.
Then they decided to go their separate ways. Powrie is now a mum. Aleh spent three years working in the corporate world, but the ocean kept calling her back – and how she’s scratching her competitive sailing itch after a five-year break.
And she’s created a new crew, gunning for the Paris 2024 Olympics – only this time with a Molly.
Aleh is trying her hand for the first time at the helm of a 49erFX skiff, and with a distinguished crewmate, Olympic silver medallist Molly Meech.
“We’re starting from scratch – a whole new team,” says Aleh. “My learning curve is pretty sharp, but I love it – the boat is so much fun.”
Maybe they’d prefer to have a new identity, too. Like Team Mojo.
There’s not a lot of difference in their ages. Aleh, who made her Olympic debut at the age of 22, is now 35; Meech, just 20 when she won the inaugural 49erFX world title, is 28.
But Meech has it over Aleh in experience in the thrilling skiff class; she’s sailed the boat, with Alex Maloney, since it first arrived on the world scene a decade ago.
After a disappointing 12th finish at the Tokyo Olympics, missing the medal race, Meech and Maloney decided to amicably split tacks. After 10 years together, they felt it was time to start a new chapter in their sailing careers.
And they may well find themselves competing against each other in a run for the Olympics, pushing their new crews to be better – a competitive rivalry the 49erFX class has always been lacking in New Zealand.
Aleh decided a year ago she wanted to sail competitively again. She was working as a coach, for Olympic-bound Nacra 17 sailors Erica Dawson and Micah Wilkinson, but spent the end of last summer learning how to sail a 49erFX.
“I wanted to do it fresh, start something new,” says Aleh, who’s chair of the Athletes’ Commission for World Sailing.
“I’d watched them sailing and thought ‘surely it’s not that hard’. But woah, it was really hard! I was completely out of control, falling over.
“But I wanted to see whether it was possible, and that’s the cool part – challenging myself, learning something new.”
She was juggling her own sailing lessons with coaching right up until the Tokyo Olympics, where she was one of only four female coaches in the entire New Zealand Olympic team.
“I really enjoyed coaching – and working with Erica and Micah was one of the reasons I wanted to go sailing again. We had so much fun, the three of us, campaigning overseas. We worked hard, but we had fun,” says Aleh.
“And that’s what I want to do with my sailing now. Work hard, but have fun. The cool thing for Molly is that I’m hugely enthusiastic.”
Meech is excited by the possibilities, too. She says she took a decent break from sailing after the Olympics and made “a few big decisions” – including starting a fresh partnership on the water.
“It’s quite new, but we have a really cool challenge ahead of us and it’s going to be exciting to see what we can achieve in two-and-a-half years,” she says.
Meech has always thrived on a challenge – and she’s given herself three of them this year. She’s also studying for her Master’s degree, and is hoping to start a new job this year in sustainability, through the new Prime Minister’s scholarship internship programme.
“I got back in the boat again this week and my hands already have blisters on them,” Meech laughs.
Aleh admits she’s “very lucky” to be learning from Meech. “Molly is hugely experienced and one of the best FX crew in the world,” she says.
The pair decided from the get-go that Paris 2024 was their aim.
“It’s a pretty short lead-in time, but we’re all go for an Olympic campaign,” Aleh says. “Everything’s happening pretty quickly.”
They shipped their new boat off to Europe this week, and are planning to fly over in April to race it.
“That gives me the chance to learn how to sail an FX here first,” says Aleh. They’ll send another new boat to Nova Scotia for the world 49erFx championships at the end of August.
Aleh and Meech have yet to sail a race together, but that’s on the cards for next Friday, when the national 49er championships are sailed off Murray’s Bay in Auckland.
“We know it’s going to be hard work over the next two years. But we’re taking it seriously. We’re doing this to perform,” Aleh says.
“The question is how far can we go? How much can we do in this time. I think coming in fresh isn’t a bad thing.
“I’ve only ever sailed with Polly, which was for eight or nine years, and Molly has only sailed with Alex, for nine or 10 years.” Both crews were renowned for their team work, their synchronicity on and off their boats. “But it’s surprising how similar Molly and I are.”
Maloney wrote on her Instagram profile earlier this week that she still had “fire in her belly” to keep racing, and had found a new sailing partner. “I am very appreciative to have landed on a cool opportunity with a great sailor,” she wrote.
If Maloney continues to sail in the 49erFX, she will have strong competition.
“A Kiwi squad is something we haven’t had for a long time,” Aleh says. “But it will be really good for women’s sailing.”