Gaels sail for Olympic gold

Queen’s graduates Oskar Johansson, left, and John Curtis will be competing for Canada in the Olympics in Athens this month.
Queen’s graduates Oskar Johansson, left, and John Curtis will be competing for Canada in the Olympics in Athens this month.
Photo courtesy of
Queen’s alumni John Curtis (left) and teammate Oskar Johansson (right) set their sights on Olympic gold in Athens.
Queen’s alumni John Curtis (left) and teammate Oskar Johansson (right) set their sights on Olympic gold in Athens.
Photo courtesy of
Johansson (left) and Curtis (right) get a lift from the wind and long-time friend Cowan.
Johansson (left) and Curtis (right) get a lift from the wind and long-time friend Cowan.
Photo courtesy of

The moment John Curtis and Oskar Johansson have been working towards for the past four years is fast approaching. Athens is on the horizon, and they can’t wait.

The Queen’s alumni will be sailing in the Tornado class of the upcoming Olympics, taking place in Athens from August 8-20. The duo, currently ranked first in Canada, third in North America, and fifteenth internationally, learned that they had qualified for the games on June 23. Since then, they’ve been caught up in a whirlwind of excitement and preparation.

Currently, the duo are in Athens settling into a training routine amidst the pre-Olympic tumult.

“It’s very chaotic here” Curtis said, noting it took them a day and a half to find their boat after it had been transported in from Sweden. But luckily they aren’t affected by the construction crises that have plagued these Games.

“The swimmers have no roof yet!” Johansson said.

It’s partly a love of the water that keeps Curtis and Johansson hooked on this challenging sport. “There’s just something about the water, in every human being,” Johansson explained. “I really like being out there and mastering such a different environment.” Curtis concurred. “Water is in my soul.”

Both sailors say they love to test themselves — “finding the winning formula [in sailing] is so complicated, but I like the challenge” Curtis said. Johansson called himself a “very competitive person” - and these similar outlooks allow them to work together smoothly as a Tornado team.

A skipper and a crewman are required to sail this very fast class of boat, and good teamwork is essential. “It’s a very intimate relationship. You have to understand how to communicate,” Curtis explained.

“You can support each other.” Johansson agreed. “There are usually different types of personalities - the skipper is calmer, while the crew can be more up and down because of all the moving around he has to do. You feed off each other,” he said.

The pair have been sailing and working together to qualify for the games for about four years now, and their time at Queen’s played a major part in both of their experiences.

After coming in OAC to the major CORK Regatta held annually in Kingston, Curtis felt he had to attend Queen’s. While studying law here, he restarted the sailing team that went on to be very successful in the North American collegiate circuit under his leadership. “I wanted to give back to Canadian sailing,” he said. “I felt that the college circuit was missing in Canada.”

Though he was too old to sail for the team, Curtis worked with them administratively. It paid off for him in the long run: “The team helped train Oskar!” he said.

Oskar Johansson, Curtis’ skipper, was a member of the team during its peak years. In the fall of 2000, they were ranked first in North America, an unheard-of feat given the program had no funding, no coaching and water “that was frozen half the year!” Johansson laughed. “The American coaches were furious. They didn’t understand how we kept whipping them.”

The team boasted several excellent national-level sailors that year. In addition to Johansson, Bernard Luttmer and Nathan Cowan were devoting their energies to Queen’s sailing in 2000 after near misses in campaigns for places on the Canadian team heading into the Sydney Olympics.

Luttmer, a top-flight sailor in the Laser class, is headed for Athens this August as well. He and Johansson are also business partners in running the Course Cram program at Queen’s, a project hard to balance with their rigorous training schedules. Cowan was a highly-ranked sailor in his own right, and the third founding member of Course Cram. Sadly, he died in February 2002 on his way to a regatta in Florida.

His death made Johansson, his long-time roommate, all the more determined to succeed. “Nathan’s a big reason why I’m here [at the Olympics],” he said. “He’s a big part of the journey for Bernie and I. His passing put it into perspective —you’re only young once, and I’ve got something to do. I’ve got to go to the Olympics.”

Curtis too feels the closeness of Cowan’s spirit to this endeavour: “He was an inspiration to all of us,” Curtis said. “It feels like we’re keeping the dream alive.”

The Olympic dream has been a huge part of Curtis’ life. He came very close to making the team in ’92, ’96, and 2000, but missed out each time. Then Ken Dool, director of the Canadian sailing team’s high performance group, suggested that Curtis’ experience and excellent crewing skills would be a good match for Johansson’s helming skills. And the rest, as they say, is history.

Johansson’s best finish before teaming up with Curtis was a gold medal at the ‘99 Pan Am Games in Winnipeg, a moment he remembers well.

“It was great to win with my family and all of Canada behind me. It was addictive,” he recalled. “I felt one step closer to achieving my dreams. I realised if I can do this here, why not at the Olympics?”

Still, the skilled duo isn’t too focused on the podium. Their goal is clear: they want to sail their very best, and that’ll be enough.

“We want to reach our own best potential,” Curtis said.

Johansson agreed: “All we want is our best-ever performance.”

The outlook is very promising. “Today felt pretty good” Curtis said when asked of his best sailing moment. Athens feels like a dream to him right now.

“It hasn’t sunk in yet, that it’s not just another regatta,” Johansson said. “But maybe when we go to the opening ceremonies and’s amazing to be a part of it.”

—With files from Kingston This Week.

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