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'Could Have Been A Lot Worse': Saunders Shakes Off Crash To Reset For Sailing World Champs

Tom Saunders recalls the feeling of disbelief as he lay prone on the ground, pain pulsing through his shoulder and down the left side of his body.

Only moments earlier he had been pedalling toward one of the many roundabouts along Auckland’s busy East Coast Road, navigating morning traffic on his solo training ride as he had done many times during the Kiwi autumn.

“It all happened so fast, and the car hit me pretty hard,” Saunders said.

“It was quite a scary moment lying on the road and I remember being in complete shock.”

Then the fear set in.

“At first, I didn’t know how bad it was. The adrenalin was running high and probably masking a few things. It took me a minute to get up and be helped off the road.”

Two months on and fortunately, patches of light scarring are all that remain from the frightful incident, Saunders says from The Hague where he is putting the finishing touches to his preparation ahead of the Sailing World Championships starting on Friday night (NZ time).

“The bike took most of the impact. It was written off but luckily, I didn't go under the wheels. I lost a bit of skin down my left side and hit my shoulder which I've been rehabbing since but thankfully, I didn’t get seriously hurt.

“It could have been a lot worse, that's for sure.”

The accident is the latest in many twists on Saunders' path to next year’s Olympic Games in Paris.

It’s a campaign that’s seen plenty of highs - in late 2021 he made history as only the second Kiwi to be crowned ILCA 7 (Laser) world champion - and a few frustrating lows, like watching from afar as his teammates battled it out at the Olympic test event in Marseille in July, a dress rehearsal for the Paris Games.

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In Saunders’ absence George Gautrey impressed in France, finishing fourth in a star-studded ILCA 7 fleet after also claiming silver by winning the medal race at the Princess Sofia Regatta in Palma de Mallorca in April.

It was this result in Spain, where Saunders lined up for the final race in the silver-medal position before a false start eventually forced him to drop to fifth overall, that secured Gautrey’s selection for Marseille.

Saunders has moved on from the “obvious disappointment” of missing out on spending valuable time at the same venue and against much of the same competition the New Zealand team are likely to face at the Games.

“It shows we have a strong squad and George and I are both better for it,” Saunders said of the competition for the sole ILCA 7 spot at the quadrennial event.

“Hopefully, it sets a strong benchmark for the rest of the [ILCA 7] squad. Sam [Meech, former Olympic bronze medallist] was always that to me and he exemplified it in the right way. I hope I do the same.”

Saunders took time out of the sport after missing out on selection for the Tokyo Olympics to Meech, turning instead to training for and racing in an Ironman event to help reignite his passion for sailing.

It did the trick, as Saunders won the ILCA 7 world championships in Barcelona soon after his return – the first New Zealander to do so since Nik Burfoot in 1994.

He’s not been far from the front of the international fleet since, finishing fourth at the same event a year later.

His result in Palma, followed by an 11th at the Hyeres World Cup a fortnight later, wasn’t a true reflection of how he was sailing in Europe, Saunders says.

“I came home after Hyeres for a training block – to get fitter, healthier and stronger for the worlds. It was fairly brutal as we were heading into the New Zealand winter but I enjoy that side of it.”

Not competing in Marseille has allowed him to focus entirely on his performance in The Hague – New Zealand’s first chance to secure boats for the Games across many of the classes.

“It's a truly unique venue and it could be a difficult place to feel comfortable. I spent some time there last year and have been training in similar conditions just down the coast recently."

Saunders returns to top-level competition this weekend as one of 35 Kiwis across 10 Olympic classes but one of the country's brightest medal prospects.

He will line up in the ILCA 7 fleet alongside Gautrey, Luke Deegan and Caleb Armit.

“The world champs hold more importance than the other regattas throughout the year and you know everyone is going to put their best foot forward," Saunders said.

“It will define your season, so there is a lot more pressure on everyone. That means a few more nerves but I feel prepared.”

There will also be plenty of focus on the 49er fleet, where Logan Dunning Beck and Oscar Gunn are back in action after missing out on a Marseille spot to Isaac McHardie and Will McKenzie.

McHardie and McKenzie finished fifth in France – one of a handful of Kiwi crews to narrowly miss out on podium places.

Saunders is convinced there's more to come from the team over the next two weeks.

“I've worked incredibly hard to get here and be in the best possible shape to perform," he said.

"That’s really all I can do. Now comes the exciting part, where anything can happen.”

That’s something Saunders knows better than most.

© Scoop Media

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