Promising Canadian sailor already faces plenty of challenges on Olympic journey

The Canadian Press

Just 20, promising Canadian sailor James Juhasz was already targeting the 2024 Olympics.

While no one knows what the Olympic landscape looks like these days, Juhasz has been dealing with challenges and hardships for a while trying to keep his Olympic dream alive. Things suddenly have become a lot more complicated.

"Everything is up in the air right now," he said, echoing the feeling of many.

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A student at Queen's University — he picked it because Kingston, Ont., is a sailing haven that is home to the national team during the summer — Juhasz juggles his sport with school (he's studying history) and fundraising.

He was due to take part in the Princess Sofia Regatta in Palma, Spain, later this month with a regatta in Germany after that. Both have been cancelled. That prompted him to drive home from Florida, where he had been training. Now he is home in Oakville, Ont., in 14-day self-isolation. 

In February, he competed at the 2020 Laser World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. Prior to that, he represented Canada at the 2020 Hempel World Championships in Miami.

He came 23rd in the third-tier bronze fleet at the Melbourne worlds.

"The senior fleet is so unbelievably competitive," he said. "It really goes to show that even though I've been working really hard for a long time, there's still a long long ways to go. That was my first-ever senior world championship and over half of that fleet competed at the 2012 world championships."

Still, he is clearly doing something right.

Earlier this month, Juhasz received the Sail Canada Nathan R. Cowan Memorial Award, which is presented annually to the developing sailor of the year with an outstanding record of achievement in national and international competitions.

The award honours Cowan, a Canadian international sailor who died in a car accident in 2002.

"James' work ethic, drive, commitment and willingness to help others, mirrors what I saw in Nathan as an athlete and as a person" said Mike Milner, Sail Canada's high-performance director. "James will carry on Nathan's legacy with pride as the winner of this prestigious award."

Juhasz was third at Sail Canada's Olympic Classes Senior Championships last August in Kingston and fourth at the North American Laser Championships last July in New Jersey.

Juhasz, who is currently ranked seventh in Canada, says Sail Canada is re-evaluating its team qualification and team trials for the Olympics. A Sail Canada spokeswoman says Canada has qualified in the Finn (men), Laser Radial (women), RS:X windsurfing (women), 470 (men), 49er (men) and 49er FX (women) classes.

That does not include Juhasz's Laser class, which he calls the most competitive at the Olympics.

"Not only are the top-10 people some of the best sailors in the entire world, the class goes really really deep," Juhasz said. "Because it's the most accessible class, most people sail in the Laser. So the top 150 (Laser) people in the world are all really really really really good sailors. Not just the top 30 like in some other classes."

Brenda Bowskill of Whitby, Ont., and Oakville's Lee Parkhill represented Canada in the women's and men's Laser classes at the 2016 Rio Olympics. They finished 16th and 23rd, respectively.

Juhasz trains during the summer and combines school and sailing in the early fall. In winter, he usually takes a reduced course load and heads to warmer climes to train or compete. Usually he has his sailing schedule set for a year in advance.

Given the current travel restrictions and regatta cancellations, Juhasz expects to be training at home for the foreseeable future, which in Canada currently means dodging ice on the water.

He started young in the sport. His family had a small boat at the Bronte Harbour Yacht Club in Oakville and he was enrolled in a sailing camp at age seven.

"I instantly fell in love — spent a lot of time around boats, specifically small boats, growing up."

By 12, he was racing for the club. At 14 he was on the provincial team.

He chose the Laser, because it is the most affordable among the Olympic classes. Plus he calls it the "most pure form of sailing that is in the Olympics."

The boats are all exactly the same. And while not as fast as other classes, it allows for time for strategy. 

"It makes it even more tactical than other forms of sailing."

A new Laser boat costs about $10,000. Juhasz's current ride is four years old, meaning he is due for a new one given its competitive lifespan.

While some competitors keep a second boat in Europe, he can only afford one so he charters a boat when he goes overseas. At the world championships and Olympics, it's a mandatory charter with competitors getting a brand new boat to use.

Juhasz says he knows his own boat "like the back of my hand." Getting used to another takes about a day, he adds.

"I stepped into the boat in Melbourne and for the first day I was kind of realizing 'the grip on this desk isn't as grippy as mine at home.' I was sliding around a little bit more, but you get used to that quite quickly."

When he trains in Florida, he drives down — usually in November — with the boat on top and all his gear in the back of his 2002 pickup truck (he is about to upgrade to a 2014 truck).

Most recently he was in Palm Beach, Fla. Currently single, Juhasz says he doesn't spend enough time in one place to have a relationship.

"Sacrifices need to be made," he said.

While Juhasz gets a small amount of provincial funding, he relies on fundraising (www.windathletes.ca/athletes/james-juhasz) to help his sailing campaign. He'll also take side jobs such as towing trailers around to help pay the bills.

"What I don't fund-raise is out of my pocket," said Juhasz, whose provincial funding has gone down by at least 30 per cent over the last three or four years.

He estimates his annual sailing budget at $35,000 a year, which he says is barely scraping by. A new boat will add to that bill.

Fundraising takes time away from the water. So he's hoping to land some corporate sponsorship to ease the load, looking to tell people his story and show them he can be a worthwhile partner.

"I can't say I don't enjoy myself sometimes but it's a lot of really really hard work," he added. "When I'm back at home, I'm in the gym every single day working really hard and when I'm (away) I'm in the gym every day and on the water every day."

He has trained full-time every summer since he was 14. It's necessary given each race lasts about an hour and he can take part in two or three a day.

"Sometimes we go out and we wait around for wind and we can be on the water for up to 10 hours. Especially if we're behind schedule and we need to get three or four races in."

The six-foot-three, 185-pounder reckons the last day of competition in Melbourne, he burned 8,000 calories "or something crazy like that."

"By the end of six days of that in a row, you're just absolutely emotionally and physically devastated."

He spent January in Miami, renting a house with some teammates. During the recent spring break, the cheapest place they could find was a no-frills small motel. "Cigarettes floating around the pool," he recalled.

Like many in the Laser class, Juhasz's boat does not have a name.

"I guess we don't really want to get too attached (since) we go through them so quickly," he said.

 

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 23, 2020.

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Follow @NeilMDavidson on Twitter

Neil Davidson, The Canadian Press

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