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Hope Floats

For Asenathi Jim and Roger Hudson, competing for their spot in the 2016 Rio Olympic Games on Granger Bay was a small stretch of their 10-year road to gold. An unlikely dream shared by two people who were never meant to meet.

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Two sailors from two very different worlds. One never expected to set foot on a boat. The other was born on one but thought his yachting dream washed-up. Together they are striving for gold for Africa.

Asenathi Jim grew up in a mud hut in the outskirts of Fort Beaufort, a town in the Eastern Cape province of South Africa. At the age of 10, he thought that was it. By chance, Jim went on holiday to visit his cousins in Simons Town, Cape Town. His cousins were learning to sail and for the first time he set foot on a boat. Forgive us; he took to it like a fish to water.

“It was chance luck that I ended up in a boat in the first place. I was picked up by the right people, I started performing,” says Jim.

In 2011, the 18-year-old protégé Jim teamed up with his coach, and future racing shipmate, Roger Hudson. The South African sailor grew up in the affluent suburb of Newlands, Cape Town, and on the water. His father had also been an Olympic athlete, but as far as Hudson was concerned his career was over.

“I always had my eye on being an Olympic sailor. When I was 13 years old, I was competing in the under-15 nationals and my dad was going to the Olympics… I had shelved [the dream of competing in the Olympics] and thought it was over. If you don’t find the right teammate, if you don’t find the right kind of campaign, it’s just not going to work in an Olympic sport,” says Hudson.

Together, Jim and Hudson qualified for the London Olympics in 2012. It was the dream start to a partnership that has lasted six years. Now the 38-year-old Hudson and 21-year-old Jim are sharing an even bigger dream.

“Our goal in the last Olympics [London] was to get into the Olympics, and then we made it, especially when Asenathi was so young. It’s unusual for a sailor to be that age and at the Olympic Games… Our goal this time around is to be in the top 10. That’s the medal race, a very ambitious target, because of the 27 teams there, probably 23 of them are thinking the same thing,” says Hudson.

It’s going to be tough.

On a two-man 470-Class yacht there’s nowhere to hide when winds rip your sail to shreds and snap your mast like a twig. This has been the danger at the 470 African Championship. It’s been a tough week for the 11 teams from Angola, Algeria and South Africa, who tested their mettle over 10 races in the trying winds of Granger Bay, in the shadow of Table Mountain, Cape Town. A true test, if ever, to compete for Africa’s spot at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.

The competition was as fierce as the wind. On day two, Hakim Djoulah and Samir Ksouri, from Algeria, were forced to retire after the wind bent their mast and broke two fingers. The pair were in hospital before their wetsuits had dried, dreams of the Olympics as shattered as their fingers.

On the final day, the sea was as calm as a mill pond. The wind was soft and dolphins and seals swam alongside the catamaran.

It was a tight finish; Hudson and Jim claimed gold, a few points clear of the rest of the pack. The pair fought tooth and nail to represent Africa.

Hudson and Jim returned to shore flanked by the other yachts in a small guard of honor. Hudson’s five-year-old niece, Hailey, and seven-year-old nephew, James, jumped aboard to help the exhausted sailors pull their yacht to shore.

Someone who was not surprised to see the pair win was Nikolaos Drougas, a respected trainer on the international sailing circuit and now the coach of the Angolan team.  Back in 2002, Drougas was sent by the international 470 Class to train coaches and sailors. It was here he met Jim.

“Suddenly we found someone special who had talent. I still remember, in my report to the officials, saying we had a raw diamond in the Class,” says Drougas.

At the time, Drougas recalls Jim was living with his grandfather in a shack in the township of Khayelitsha, 30 kilometers outside of Cape Town.

“It was painful for me, he was living in a tin box of Coca-Cola [signs], fitting four or five people inside. It was so touching, this is what convinced me to pull strings from the 470 International Class to support more sailing,” says Drougas.

Still in their wetsuits and with sea spray crystallizing on their foreheads, Hudson and Jim are every inch the conquering heroes. They jump from the boat and give each other a high-five and a hug. It’s been a long journey. It took Jim many years to explain to his family why he wanted to become a professional sailor.

“My mom wasn’t really convinced about me sailing because most black people were suspicious of sending me into the sea or in a boat. It’s just not in our nature to sit in boats or be a swimmer,” says Jim.

“In the Eastern Cape, no one realized what I was after. I would say that no one cared at the time. Now, when they see me, they are more interested… At the time they vaguely knew what sailing was, but I also didn’t mention it to them a lot… I am really stoked that my family members now understand. I spent so much time putting it down in detail,” says Jim.

Hudson’s upbringing is a stark contrast to Jim. He grew up in a family that lived on the sea. Hudson wasn’t the only late bloomer in the family, his father, Dave, went to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona at the age of 46.

“It was inspirational him being part of that team and seeing my dad. I wanted that,” says Hudson.

At the age of 19, Hudson tried to make it as a full-time sailor. He ended up doing a business degree and headed off to Europe to look for work. For seven years, he worked with real estate developers building large scale projects in eastern Europe.

“We were building up finance and sales networks for them in London. It was an entrepreneurial activity that went very well, all in the pre-2008 markets.”

Then in 2008, Hudson took a chance to revive his dream. He came home to found RaceAhead, a non-profit organization, with his father. They wanted to identify and train a new generation of Olympic sailors, one of which was Jim.

“When we team up we have a great synergy, and the combination of our different strengths is very powerful… It’s a bit like saying opposites attract. We come from such different backgrounds, such different worlds, we are not dealing with the same kinds of qualities. We have different styles and we have different views. Sometimes when you put those two together and have good chemistry you are able to do something quite special,” says Hudson.

Their dream doesn’t stop in Rio.

“We are looking towards Tokyo. We have a very clear goal, we want to be the very first Olympic sailing team from South Africa to win a medal. The best ever result was a fifth place in the 1956 Melbourne Games. It takes 10 or 15 years to be a team like that. We are hoping to do that in 10,” says Hudson.

There is much more to come from South African sailors.

“Our three training partners came second, third and fourth [in the 470 African Championship], it’s fair to say that at least one of them can make Tokyo,” says Hudson.

Coaching is not as easy as it looks, says Jim.

“I saw it with me and [Hudson], when he was trying to nurture me. Now I can see how difficult it is to try and nurture youngsters into the ranks. Now I can see how difficult it was for [Hudson] to train me, when I have to teach others.”

“In life you start something, then you achieve something that you want, then there is more. You want to do more, beat a record. There is always something you want to beat, whether it’s time or competitors or to win all the races,” says Jim.

And how do both sailors intend to pay for the bills?

“What secures the funding is when you gain a profile for one reason or another. Then that makes you relevant. Normally you gain a profile from getting results. I think what the media like and the sponsors who have come on board like, is the fact that we are a unique South African team. Two from different races, from different backgrounds and parts of the country – two very different people,” says Hudson.

If you thought that after becoming African champions the pair would take some time off to recover, you’d be wrong. The next day the team were on a plane bound for Miami, United States, to compete in their next race. Their hope riding on a steady mast, comradeship, skills and a true wind.

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