George Leonchuk is a Ukrainian sailor, silver medalist of the Summer Olympics in 2004 (Athens) in Class 49er in the team of Rodion Luka. He started sailing and racing when he was 11 years old and never left the sport since. Originally from Kiev Yacht Club, he now participates in different classes and championships all around the world. He has been competing in such classes as Class 49er and Dragon. We had a word with him about his career, future and his secret of success. Enjoy!
Tell us how you started your career in sailing. What were your first steps in it?
For me, it started pretty much like for any other boys of that age during the Soviet years. We could try any sport back then, and after tennis, swimming, hockey, a bit of boxing, I followed my older brother into sailing in one of the gulfs near Kiev. I was fascinated by the technical side of sailing, by interesting stories from our coach and older boys, by this thirst of adventure you get aboard a ship. I started as a cadet, later I was a trimmer in my brothers’ team. After that, we both went our own ways and both became helmsmen.
What about your career in Olympics? How did it start for you and what do you think about the Olympics in general? What about sailing in the Olympics, how will it change in 10-20 years?
Participating in the Olympic Games is an unforgettable and exciting step for any sportsman. Our way to the Olympics was tough and long. Rodion Luka and I were the first and only representatives of the Class 49er in Ukraine. Besides the financial difficulties with the equipment, training, and competitions, we had a training problem: we simply did not have a partner to train with, no rivals in Ukraine whatsoever. We never even had a goal to win inside the country, something like the Ukrainian Championship in that Class did not exist. We always had to be in either top-5 among Europe Champions or top-10 World Champions. So, with all that pressure we were bound to devote ourselves entirely to sailing. We invited specialists and sportsmen from different countries, and our results soared. It was exciting and challenging to be a trimmer in a team of Rodion Luka for 12 years. This passion for fighting and aiming for the win is still living within me.
I think many factors influence the Olympics; it’s about hard work and tons of details both on the water and on the shore, but I enjoyed every bit of it. Now it’s all about the speed and dynamic classes of yachts. It requires more sportsmanship, faster decision making, more knowledge and higher resistance to adrenaline levels. However, I hope that classic yachts and long distances will also be included into the Olympic program.
You are a very famous professional sailor and you get invited to sail in large professional crews. How was this transformation from Olympic to professional, what is the secret?
I don’t think I am that popular, but thank you for the compliment. This transformation is happening while you are still in Olympic sport when you just set a goal to be on the podium of the international scale. Nowadays the level on the Olympics is so high you need to devote completely yourself to it in order to be competitive at all.
After our third Olympic Games in 2008, I was invited into a professional Transbunker Sailing Team of Sergey Pugachev, who set high goals in the Dragon Class for the team. I became a part of one of the best crews in this class in the whole world and had a unique opportunity to get to know them, learn from them. Every teammate is unique and has a different approach. I was continuously learning, wanted to apply this knowledge later in regattas.
One of the most interesting experiences I had when sailed in the same team as the owner of the team, Sergey Pugachev. He is a trimmer as well, probably a better one since he has more experience and sailing time. I have no room for mistakes; the pressure is too high. However, in the end we worked together as one. I especially remember our simultaneous work with genoa sail and backstay on the wave without the need to say a word to each other.
I think this understanding and teamwork allowed us to win the Europe Championship and get the Dragon Gold Cup several times.
The teams you are part of are always in the lead, and you are always the trimmer. Is there a secret of success? How do you prepare and set up the boat?
I think I am just lucky with the skipper and other crewmembers, who are aiming for the win. I am and have been the trimmer for 20 years. I can be at the helm or any other position, but it’s better if it will be done be someone who spent all their time training to be at those positions. The secret of the success is to completely devote yourself to what you love the most. It’s also important to become the part of the team, see the weak and strong points, to listen and do more.
What should young sailors do to evolve from Olympic sailing to sailing in professional teams? Are there any obstacles?
The most important is the experience, and not just verbal, but proving yourself time after time. One of the main advantages of a sailor who has been through the Olympics – he can be on the boat in any position in the big team, sort of universal soldier. Every team, regardless of whether are three or twenty people in it, is a mechanism with its own style, principles, and rules. You always have to play you part, but be able to help your teammate on other position if necessary. Every team has amazing and talented yachtsmen in it, sometimes they just need support with making tough decisions. Psychology of relationships is the most important factor for success.
I would like to advise young sailors to sail more on different yachts and different positions, it especially would be useful for solo sailors. Seek for stronger fleet and stronger rivals and don’t be afraid of losing. The victory will be yours eventually.
America’s Cup. Have you ever dreamed of participating? Do you think a Russian team can take part and win?
I think any yachtsman would love to participate in such a prestigious competition. We are following it, and our involvement depends on the format, which will be established by AC winners in the future.
Russian teams can participate in any kind of sailing competitions, even the America’s Cup, we have all the resources. Russian teams are quite successful in different projects in professional sailing, such as Dragon Class, Melges 20, Melges 32, J70, RC44, TP52, SB20 and others. If we can gather all amazing sailors from there, it would be a super-team.
So many youngsters and teenagers go into sailing now, it’s being developed a lot. I think we will see great results in the nearest future.
Are you happy? If you could see a 10-year-old self, what would you advise to this boy?
I do the thing I love the most; it became my profession. I also like to pass on my experience and to teach sailing. I think I am happy, yes. DO what you love and love what you do – that’s about me. If I saw a 10-year-old self, I would say "When you will turn 11 and you will want to be at the helm instead of your brother, be attentive and agile, and keep your nose from collapsing with a boom on the downwind turn at 20 knots."