Robert Scheidt: The Super Man of Sailing
Published on July 24th, 2019
Brazilian Robert Scheidt is not human. At 46 years, his body remains a rock as does his sailing ability. Still going strong, the five-time Olympic medalist came within four points of a sixth medal at the Rio 2016 Olympics. Now adding to his CV is parenting which he shares with his wife Gintare, also an Olympic medalist.
In this interview with his Italian home club on Lake Garda, Circolo vela Torbole, Robert shares his background, his approach to raising his children in the sport, and his pursuit of another medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.
Where did you start?
I started in San Paolo, in the lake of Guarapiranga, a small lake but with a beautiful club, the Yacht Club Santo Amaro. My dad has always been a member of the club, a sailor and he is the one who took me to the club and with him I had my first experiences, on the family boat “Laser Bahia- style”.
At 4-5 years old I began sailing with my dad and then at the age of 9, I began sailing the Optimist, according to the classic beginning of a sailing career, then continuing with the Snipe, a very common class in Brazil and finally when I had the right physical preparation I passed on the Laser Standard (I was about 63Kg).
At that time there were no smaller sails as now there are, like the 4. 7 and Radial and so at the beginning I suffered a bit.
Everything began thanks to my family and the positive environment in the club, where so many others children like me, started to sail.
In the meantime I’ve always done other sports such as swimming, athletics, and tennis: the idea of my family was to teach me different sports and let me choose the one I liked the most.
How important is the environment at the sailing school and competitive teams?
That’s everything; it’s where you create the basis for the future of sailing, so the environment of the club it’s very important, the instructor and the coach, the way they teach, the way they express themselves with children, the relationship that is established with them. In the early years in this sport you can either “catch” the rest of his life or even lose it. The relationship with the coach and a positive environment, in which children respect each other, know how to play, is increasingly important.
What does it mean for you and your wife Gintare to see your first son Erik, growing up in the Circolo Vela Torbole competition team?
The thing that we appreciate the most is that he comes to Circolo Vela Torbole gladly; we would never ask him if he wants to go training. He takes his stuff, comes to the club, rigs his boat, goes out and always comes back happy. He is learning very quickly thanks to his coach Reka and the whole environment, he is lucky to sail here in this beautiful place.
Has Erik asked you any technical questions yet that you might not have expected?
He doesn’t ask me many things, but he surprised me in December, when I came back from the Star Sailors League Final, because he asked me in a very specific way why I tacked at a certain point; he wanted to understand my mistakes. . . but he doesn’t like to talk about the mistakes he makes!
Actually at his age I didn’t have the maturity he has now; it’s impressive to see how quickly they learn. In any case, the best thing remains that he’s having fun and enjoying the sport, and that’s enough for me.
Any parental advice to other parents of young sailors?
It is not easy because when you become a father/parent a very strong emotional feeling is involved; it is easier to give advice when you are not a parent; when you become one, it changes a lot.
For sure it is important to help, to be present when the child needs you, but also to not force too much. You should not try to turn him into a champion too early; he/she must learn, and mostly by making mistakes, understand them and learn from them.
Then slowly if the child really likes the sport and wants to be fully dedicated to that sport, then yes the parent can do something more specific. It should never be too serious or too early, because everyone has its own time in life. For children it has to be a pleasant thing, a kind of game, there has to be the right balance. The parent has to be there to help when it’s needed, but also be careful not to “pull too hard”.
What are the most beautiful and important values of sailing for you?
What led me to sail is the sense of freedom: freedom to go outside and sail against the wind, hearing the sound of water when you passing the waves, to be able to take the boat where I want, just like a child whom for the first time takes a bike and rides by himself!
In the water there are various dimensions: you play with the wave, with the air: all this interactions with nature, with the environment, has first of all fascinated and captured me.
In sailing then there are rules, it’s a game, but with its own rules, there are others who want to be as good as you are but you have to give your everything while respecting opponents and rules, it becomes important to learn to manage the material: you can’t have every day a new boat or a new sail, you have to be able to take care of your own cleaning and tidying it up: it’s an important lesson for the growth of a child.
Finally, sailing is a sport that is never boring: every day there is a different conditions: you can have a sunny day, another could be rainy, one with strong wind or flat.
How would you set up a sailing school and a competitive activity within a club? What’s your vision?
The most important thing is to offer a bit of everything to children and young people in order to have the opportunity to try single-handed boat but also double – or crewed handed boat.
There are people brought to one or the other depending on the personality.
I’ve always felt better on the single-handed boat, even though I sailed a double-handed a boat like the Star. There are people that discover their talent by being a bowman, for example. If you offer more possibilities everyone can both find their passion and express their talent.
How would you organize a place like North Garda-Lake for young people who want to train, if you could create an ideal structure or a project for them?
I think there’s something more important than the structure itself – although it’s useful when you can also have a gym, etc. What the athletes need is there: the water, the wind. . . Here in Torbole and on Garda Lake there’s a spectacular place where the wind is really never missing.
It is important to create a positive environment, working with good coaches make a group growing day after day with a method, which is essential.
Surely changing the environment is useful; from the lake we can’t exclude races on the sea mostly, in order to able to face also different conditions like current, waves, salt water where with an athlete must experiences.
Remain the fact that this place is unique in the world, there are many foreign sailors who want to come here to train not only because of sailing, but also there is the opportunity to practice many other sports: cycling, walking or climbing on the mountains, skiing: there are many attractions, and many different landscapes.
How do you succeed in finding new incentives, to return to your seventh Olympics, in Tokyo 2020?
I am very competitive; I like to always have an important goal and the most beautiful thing in the world of sport is certainly the Olympic Games. I think I’m still able to play it and so if I’m motivated, why not taking on this new challenge?
Clearly it’s not so easy anymore because the years go by, but I think I can get to Tokyo in a very good snap. It was a difficult decision, because I stopped for two years after Rio, doing other things in the world of sailing, but now I’m really close to it like and I have to dedicate myself with great commitment.
I don’t like to go just to attend the event, I want to be ready and play for a medal once more.
What would you suggest to a young athlete aiming for the Olympics?
Having the Olympic dream is already a very important thing; I have had it since I was a child and the first goal was to qualify for the Olympic Games.
I never thought I’d get to do six Olympics; so first of all having this dream inside of me and then having the right push to work for it with dedication; then it becomes very important to have people around you, the family structure but also to have a project that allows this dream to become true.
The moment you believe in your goal, you do it not only for yourself, but also for your life. Thanks to this sport, there are many things you can learn, you can travel and meet friends all over the world, and this stays for life.
What is your vision of Olympic sailing?
I think that World Sailing has made so many changes in the last years and this creates some confusion for the perception that both the public and sailors can have.
Sailing is an expensive sport; doing an Olympic campaign costs money and I see with some concern that sailing is becoming more and more expensive and the differences in preparation between countries with more or with less resources is becoming more and more evident.
If a boat like Laser or Windsurfer, which are the most accessible and not too expensive, get kicked out from the Olympic program, this means that we’re going in a wrong direction.
We must always have an easy boat, which gives the opportunity even to those who come from an African country to compete on an equal footing against an athlete from England or another rich country. Only this equality between countries brings value to the Olympic movement, which is true only when it is represented by a large number of countries.
In the Laser, for example, there is the possibility of having 70 countries; other boat-classes cannot have a similar representation.
To have an Olympic history is fundamental, that for other disciplines such as swimming or athletics is very strong and well-known. With the sailing-sport is not possible because they change more and more often the Olympic classes. Changes are important in sport, but they can be made on the materials, but not continuously on classes, because in this way the costs are not kept under control and the Olympic history goes missing.
What is the maximum expression of sailing for you?
The moment when the race starts, with so many boats around you fighting in order to earn that meter, the sails flapping the wind, the time that you have to keep under control, the adrenaline that is released in that moment . . . a set of elements of great intensity, which I particularly appreciate.
Do you have a sailor you particularly like?
In Brazil I always had great examples, such as Lars and Torben Grael. Lars for the ability to overcome obstacles and therefore able to teach me a great lesson in life. Torben for the sporting aspect because he is a champion: being a little older than me, he’s always been my example.
When I was little I looked at him, I saw that he was winning the Olympic medals, until I started to compete against him, then with him on big boats so then I started to have an important personal relationship with him.
When I did my first Olympics in Atlanta 1996 they were in the team and having them in the team was for me a reason for a great technical growth. Then I always had a great admiration also for Paul Elvtröm, a great sailor.
Have you received any contact for America’s Cup project? Would you be interested?
I had the chance to get involved in the America’s Cup world, but it was always a difficult decision because when I could enter that moment, I would have had to give up at the same time the Olympic Campaign in the Star, which was too important for me at that time. In the end I’ve always chosen the Olympics and I think I’ve made the right decision. The America’s Cup remains beautiful and I have a lot of admiration for those who do it.
Once the Olympic campaign is over (if it will end. . . ) would you like to continue as helmsman or being a tactician of offshore boats or as coach?
As long as I can I prefer to sail; it’s clear that physically I can’t sail the Laser forever, but I really do like big boats like the TP52.
I already sailed them last year, it’s a shame that the team decided not to continue for this season, but when there will be an opportunity I would like to go back to that circuit. I’ve had a lot of requests for coaching, but when you enter that world you don’t come back to the boat as an athlete and so I try to keep that possibility away as long as I can!
Olympic joys and sorrows: which Olympic Games do you remember with most pleasure and which one with most pain?
All the Olympics where I won a medal were of course wonderful (in the order Atlanta gold, Sydney silver, Athens gold, Beijing silver, London bronze), always different moments of life, the two sailed in a double-handed boat (on the Star with Bruno Prada) were interesting because I shared that with my bowman, but the second gold medal in the Laser in Athens 2004 (after the one in Atlanta 1996) was special because of the final race, where I finally took that gold, the first time a Brazilian athlete won a gold medal for the second time!
Instead, the hardest moment was in Sydney 2000, in the race where I lost the gold to Ben Ainslie. I could aim to the gold medal but that final match race denied me and for months I kept thinking about that race; it was very difficult overcome that moment. In the end, I won the silver anyway, so I couldn’t even be too sad or too strict with myself!
The fourth place in Rio was tough, but I was aware that I was not the favored and that I could not make any mistake in that week and it hasn’t been like that.
How did you experience the two Olympic boats Star and Laser?
It all depended on what was done; once the campaign for Athens was over, I didn’t want sail the Laser anymore: I had won three Olympic medals, eight world championships; for me a cycle had closed. From that moment on, the Star became for 8-10 years everything I wanted. When the London Olympics ended in 2012, I wanted to go back to the Laser again, and I did. And now I’m motivated again to face Tokyo 2020 always with the Laser!