This is the first in a series of in-depth profiles by Senior Sports Writer John Coomber on some of Australia’s leading Olympians heading into the Beijing Games
As a 10-year-old kid, Iain Murray used to run out of the school gates after classes so he could take his little Flying Ant sailing boat round to Robert Miller’s sail loft on Sydney’s northern beaches.
“We’d rig it up, and he’d run around and pull this, pull that. He was happy to help a little kid like me,” Murray recalls.
Through their shared love of sailing boats and how they worked, both were to become legends of the sport.
Miller, who later changed his name to Ben Lexcen, went on to design the revolutionary winged keel that helped Australia II end a 132-year US winning streak in the America’s Cup of 1983.
By then his little protege had won his sixth consecutive world 18-foot skiff championship. And when Australia defended the America’s Cup four years later, it was in a boat designed and steered by the same Iain Murray.
“From my early days it was boats, and all the way through school I was drawing and scribbling boats,” Murray said.
“That led to the design of boats and building boats. When I was 12 years old I designed and built a boat and won a national title against all the seniors in the class (Cherub).”
As an all-round sailor and designer, Murray has perhaps no peer.
He has won 10 world championships and been a key player in two America’s Cup campaigns. He’s competed in Admirals Cups and numerous Sydney-Hobarts, and has been aboard the state-of-the-art maxi Wild Oats XI as it won line honours for the past three years. He is one of the most successful and highly regarded boat designers in the business.
Now at the age of 50 he is about to fill in the last blank in his resume: Olympian.
Murray and his crewmate Andrew Palfrey are currently putting the finishing touches to a six-year campaign to represent Australia in the Star class at the Olympic sailing regatta at Qingdao.
“They say the mid-age crisis affects men in many different ways. I guess I’ve decided to rejuvenate myself as an Olympic athlete,” Murray told AAP in an interview.
Typical of the man is that he has chosen the class regarded as the elite of Olympic sailing.
The Star, designed in 1910, is a far cry from the computer-sculpted racing machines of today. It’s comparatively clunky, with a huge amount of sail that tests individual sailing skills to the utmost. For that reason it attracts the people who want to match themselves against the best.
“It’s a tough boat to sail in. And it’s rewarding. You win a Star race, you know you’ve won a race,” Murray said.
It could scarcely be further removed from America’s Cup sailing, which he likens to Formula One motor racing.
“Technology has been the driver of the America’s Cup. It’s developed into a very professional R&D (research and development) program that’s highlighted by some races on the water at the end.
“If you’re a bit off the pace it doesn’t matter how good your driver is, whereas the Olympics is very much about the crews and their skills. Largely we’re all in the same equipment. In the Star there is a little bit of technology, I guess. We can fiddle with the rig a little bit, we can select our own sails, there are some minor tolerances on the boat. But mainly it’s down to the sailors.”
At Qingdao, the 16-boat Star fleet will be crewed by the creme de la creme of competition sailing.
Murray’s opponents include Brazilian Robert Scheidt, an eight-time Laser world champion and dual Olympic gold medallist, Sydney 2000 Finn gold medallist Iain Percy of Great Britain and Atlanta Finn gold medallist Mateusz Kusznierewicz of Poland, the current world Star champion.
“The people we’re in with have all come through those classes, won their gold medals, won their world championships and go on to (Star class),” Murray said.
“It’s a very tough one to win. You’ve got to be pretty dedicated. You’ve got to be fit, strong, have great crew work. You’ve got to have good judgment, you’ve got to have good racing skills, and you’ve got to have good boat speed. Boat speed is the best tactic in the world.”
For all his formidable reputation, Olympic selection was never a case of Murray strolling into the team on the basis of past accomplishments.
He and Palfrey, with a combined age of 91, will be the oldest crew on the water.
They’ve spent the past six years sweating on their fitness and straining to narrow the gap in racing skills Murray admits he lost when he devoted his late 30s and 40s to family (he has three daughters) and his expanding business interests. He employs more than 250 people in construction and boat-building and has had to disengage himself from it all to pursue his dream.
A natural leader who was accustomed to knowing everything that went on in his business, Murray has had to learn to say: `You make the call – I’m going sailing’.
It was the only way he could become competitive.
“You don’t forget how to sail, but you lose your edge in racing if you’re not in there doing it,” he said.
Murray and Palfrey tried to qualify in the Star for the Athens Games four years ago, but lost out to six-time Olympian Colin Beashel and his crewman David Giles, who eventually finished 15th.
This time they got through, the culmination of years of hard work.
By his own admission Murray had got fat and unfit. He had reached the stage where he no longer stood on the bathroom scales because he didn’t want them confirming what he already knew in his heart.
Countless hours of aerobic work – bike riding, running, spin classes, weights, sailing, injury prevention and flexibility exercises – have trimmed 30 kilos from the man known throughout sailing circles as The Big Fella.
By the time he hits the water in Qingdao he hopes to have shed another five or six kilos.
Weight will be crucial in the expected light air at the Olympic regatta, and the entire Australian sailing team has planned accordingly.
“Australians, Kiwis are typically at the front of windier regattas. If there’s wind we do well, and that’s my history as well, whether it be in Etchells or yachts or whatever,” Murray said.
“The fundamentals of sailing in light breezes has been quite a focus for us all.
“Europeans inherently sail well in light breezes – the lake sailors from Switzerland, Germany and Italy.
“It’s been a focus of ours for a long time to get our equipment right, our body weights right and to get our performances correct in those winds.”
Murray and Palfrey finished eighth (in a fleet of 105) in the recent world championships in Florida in the first outing in the boat they will sail in China.
It had been set up for light-air sailing, but the winds blew and the more they blew the worse the Australians got.
“It was understandable because of the equipment we elected to use there and how we set ourselves up in the boat,” Murray said.
“But there were some very positive things to come out of it. If you look at the results we were the second most consistent boat in the fleet.”
It also showed them what they most need to work on – performance into the wind.
Murray cannot speak too highly of his crewmate, known to everyone as Dog – a name Palfrey’s mother apparently bestowed on him at birth.
Like Murray, he is a former world champion in the Etchells class and has coached Richard Perini to multiple Farr 40 world championships.
When he and Murray decided they would get serious about qualifying for the Olympics, Palfrey relocated himself and his family from Melbourne to Sydney. They now live within a kilometre of the Murrays on Sydney’s northern beaches.
“He’s a very disciplined, focused sailor,” Murray said.
“He’s a boiler maker, so he’s very good with his hands, and he’s been working on boats, sailing on boats all his life.
“I don’t know anyone who’s any better in the world.”
The pair of them are also great friends, which helps them sort out the inevitable differences of opinion in such an intense activity and under the pressure of sailing in races that can be won and lost by millimetres.
“We’re not going to agree on everything every day, but compared to what I see in the other crews, we’re fantastic,” Murray said.
“I’ve seen plenty of people hitting each other. Sometimes it surfaces because they’ve had five or six years of their life in this thing and they see it all going out the window.
“Andrew and I can sit down and talk about it. We do a lot. We ride together, we sail together, we do a lot of travelling together. We’re sort of family in a way.”
They are also close to their coach Euan McNichol. “We’re all on the same train. He’s focused and dedicated too,” Murray said.
If there is a disappointment about the Games it is that he will not get to experience life in the athletes village in Beijing, which his contemporaries who’ve been to past Olympics tell him is perhaps the best part of it.
But because the Star competition does not start until day seven of the Games, Murray and Palfrey will be able to don the Australian team uniform and march together in the opening ceremony before returning to the yachting venue about an hour’s flight from Beijing.
“We’ll be a couple of proud old diggers,” Murray said.
As he contemplates what lies ahead of him, Murray can’t help but cast his mind back to the days in the 1960s when he zoomed around Middle Harbour in his Flying Ant and his self-built Cherub and soaked up everything he could from Lexcen, who died in 1988.
“From Ben I learned to look around me, look laterally, look for all the answers really.
“He wasn’t bound by the regular rules of what was good and what was bad. He made his own determination on that. I’d say I’m probably a conservative version of him.
“It’s funny,” he said. “I was always the young kid asking way too many questions, and now I’m the old bloke.”
BORN: Sydney, April 14 1958
WEIGHT: On the way to 93kg (from about 125kg)
NICKNAME: The Big Fella
CREW: Andrew “Dog” Palfrey
COACH: Euan McNichol
WORLDS TITLES (10):
18 ft Skiff: 1977, 1978, 1979, 1980, 1981, 1982.
Match Racing World Cup 1987
12-Metre World Cup 1988
Maxi Class World Cup 1988
FAMILY: Wife Alex, daughters Eliza, Lucinda, Imogen.
BUSINESS: Engineer, boat designer and builder. Designer and developer in aged care, marinas, childcare, hotels, hospitality