We sat down with Eroni Leilua, Samoan Sailing Champion and Olympian, to chat about his sailing career and how he maintains his peak performance.
What does sailing mean to you?
As cliche as it sounds, sailing is more than a sport for me, it's more of a lifestyle. You get quite a unique crowd that do sailing, and they do it from a young age right up until their 60s, 70s and even older. It's one of the few sports where the ones who enjoy sailing stick around for a long time, as it’s a sport that you can do through till your older years.
That’s why it's a lifestyle, you’re not always in it just to compete, you can actually go out and just have fun. You can go out with friends and family if you've got a big enough boat too. You learn a lot about the environment and weather systems, much like how the old navigators used to use the clouds to read wind. It's a cool way to touch base with how our ancestors used to navigate. For me personally, being on a single-handed boat provides a good way to disconnect from the rest of the world. When I go out training it's just me and the boat. There’s no phone buzzing or other people out there to distract you, you’re just in your own little bubble, which is kind of cool.
It’s therapeutic, especially during lockdown's when everyone's brains are going 100 miles an hour, it’s just a good way just to go out there and kind of reset.
So how did you discover sailing or who brought you to it when you were younger?
My dad is originally from Samoa and my mum from New Zealand. We moved back there after I was born, to live with his family. We tried various different sports, but because the country is so small, there weren’t many sports to try out, especially for younger children. There is this one sailing club which mum was eager for us to have a go at because she used to do sailing when she was younger. My granddad was a keen sailor and had a boat as well, so she had experienced that through her childhood and wanted us to give it ago too. Dad wasn’t too keen on us sailing as he is quite scared of deep water, and he didn’t want us to be in danger, but ironically, he ended up becoming our biggest sailing supporter. From the age of eight we started sailing socially and then got into a bit of racing as we got older.
When we moved back to New Zealand, when I was 12, we realised that NZ was sailing at a way higher level than Samoa. We thought we were pretty good in Samoa, then moved to NZ and had a rude awakening. But it helped our progression because NZ is one of the top sailing nations in the world, so we just managed to keep building from where we left off in Samoa to where I am today. We competed in youth competitions, continuing to represent Samoa, because that’s where it all started. I’m loyal to where I grew up, and it’s a good way to put Samoa on the map.
Along the way I have tried to provide motivation for sailors in Samoa, show them that there is a pathway to go, and that Samoa isn’t the limit, you can progress to world competitions and even the Olympics.
You are the first Samoan Sailor to make it to the Olympics, how does that feel?
Massive moment and real proud, but also hoping I've paved the way for others to aspire for similar goals. People probably see that as a farfetched dream. There are a lot of athletes who haven't necessarily been brought up in Samoa or any island in fact, but still represent the country because they've got a tie through some relative, whereas I've shown the locals that I was actually from there and began my career at the very club they sail at, so there is a chance they can follow a similar pathway.
Did you always dream of being and Olympian?
Yeah, that was always the big goal, but as a kid from Samoa and you just didn't think it would ever come true. Since sailing competitively that has always been my biggest goal.
There is a Pacific Games, which is similar to the Commonwealth, but just for the Pacific, and is held every four years as well. I competed in the 2011 Pacific Games and then there was talk that the next games would become the new Pacific qualifiers for the Olympics. From then, I knew there was actually a realistic chance of getting to the Olympics, but to be successful I had to beat all other Pacific Nations. So, from 2011 I had that in the back of my mind and once I moved back to Auckland after studying in Dunedin, I began training for the 2019 Pacific Games. These Games were due to be the qualifiers for the 2020 Toyko Olympics, however, the Olympic qualification pathway was pulled two weeks before competition, due to behind-the-scenes politics. The qualifiers were then moved to the 2020 World Champs held in Melbourne two months later, where I qualified.
Do you think sailing is more physical or mental?
It's funny someone said it was like a physical game of chess.
It's definitely physical because you're working nonstop to keep your boat going as fast as you can. In the wind that means keeping your boat down, essentially fighting the wind to keep your boat flat and using a lot of core to reduce your rigid movements and be as smooth as you can, almost being one with the boat. Then from a tactical point of view you’ve got to read the conditions and strategize. You can go in with a plan, but obviously wind, currents, and tides change, so you have to be able to adapt.
What was your training schedule in Tokyo?
In Tokyo we raced in the afternoons because that is when the breeze kicked in. So, you had the morning to warm up and get some food, then be ready by 12pm – 2pm. Which ironically was the hottest time of the day as well, so you had to make sure that you were well hydrated. We were walking around with ice vests most of the time which helped.
The morning was breakfast then jump on the bike to warm up. On windy days your legs are the main muscle group you use so it was important to get the muscles warm and stretched.
You try to eat lunch early, then the races are about an hour long and we had two of them. You'd have about 10 or 15 minutes between each race to get some more food in. Then after the races I would have an ice bath for recovery and jump back on the bike again to keep the blood flowing.
Do you have a hero you look up to?
My first coach when I moved to New Zealand. His name was Blair McClay. He was in our club, and he was the club hero because he won the youth World Champs. He was well known in New Zealand on the sailing scene, and he was one of the first people in sailing that I looked up to and also knew personally. He was my coach when we moved over from Samoa and he had gone and done big things, so he was a good role model. Then after that there wasn’t really anyone I looked up to so much but had a lot of respect for fellow sailor Sam Meech. I met him in 2009 as we both attended the Laser Youth World Champs which he won convincingly and then after seeing him win bronze at the Rio Olympics, I was like this guy is the man.
What's the next big goal for you?
I’ve got two goals. One goal is to go to the Olympics, but the next goal, which is a work in progress, is to develop the Samoan sailing scene. There's a program over there which has been running since I left Samoa by my first ever coach and she has been the heart and soul of Samoa sailing for over 20 years. I fear that once she moves on there will a big hole to fill and really driver the development. I'm not saying I'm the person to do that, but I want to work with her to set up something to make sure that sailing continues and grows as a sport.
What has been the hardest moment in your career so far?
Probably training for the Olympics. The winter of 2020 I was stuck in NZ, training by myself which was difficult to stay motivated and get out there in the cold and continue to get enough hours out on the water.
It was hard for me as I didn’t have anyone to bounce off or train with, I didn’t know if the Olympics were going ahead, and through winter I’d be getting off the water without feeling in my feet or hands. It was a good test of motivation.
It did get better when I was invited to join the NZ team training. I was able to go out and learn off some of the best in the business. It was difficult however the balance work with training. Everyday I’d got to work then sail for 2-3 hours, gym for 1-2 hours and then home to eat and sleep and then repeat.
What was your training schedule like leading up to the Olympics?
I would train at the gym for about two hours in the morning, then go to work. After work I would have about three hours for more training, then come home, eat, sleep and start again.
Then in summer there are more competitions, as that’s when the sailing season runs in NZ. Every weekend I was racing as well. That way I got to train during the week and then apply what I learnt in the weekend.
Then in Autumn I was back to training by myself again for a month or two. I got an invite from the NZ team to train with them for a few sessions, which was really good, I was able to get a good idea about how my own training was going.
How do you maintain your peak performance?
Diet. Leading up to the games, I was pretty strict. Then coming back from Tokyo, I had a few blowouts, because I had been so strict for so long, and you notice it quite quickly on how much it can affect your fitness.
Sleep is another one that I found definitely helped. With work I have shorter sleep cycles, but leading up to the games I made sure that I was getting enough sleep for proper recovery. I learnt from the previous year that if you didn't get enough sleep, you just wouldn't be able to give 100% each time.
What do you do for recovery?
I like swimming for active recovery, but when it gets too cold, I do a lot of stretching. What I did pick up from the games was how well ice baths work. I didn't use them as back home as it was winter, but I learnt how important and effective they can be.
As mentioned before I find sleep and diet super important for recovery.
Nuzest Clean Lean Protein and Good Green Vitality shakes helped me big time. I started taking Nuzest in 2014 and I have a smoothie every day, I have Clean Lean Protein Smooth Vanilla, Good Green Vitality, two bananas and some peanut butter.
The Clean Lean Protein bars are ridiculous! I have had quite a few protein bars before and they don’t taste real, there is no real substance. But the Clean Lean Protein Peanut Butter & Chocolate tastes like a genuine chocolate bar.
Outside of sailing? What do you love to do?
I DJ a little bit, on the side. Nothing too serious, but I have a friend who works for RedBull and he give me gigs every so often. My biggest claim to fame was DJing at the Sevens, I was playing on the main field right before the finals. It was in front of 40,000 people and it was my job to hype everyone up before the finals. It was good fun, my adrenaline went through the roof, and I barely even remember the set.
I DJ a wedding every now and then, and make music, which is something I've done since I was a kid.
Any advice for up-and-coming athletes?
Pin your ears back and put in the hard yards. Even if the funding, or opportunities, or support aren’t there, if you put in the effort and give it your all and get the results the rest will take care of itself.
Don’t let anything stop you from pushing further and aspiring to reach your goals.
You don’t always need to have natural skills and abilities to make it, you just need to put in the hard work and you will get there.
And don’t cheat or cut corners. The habits you build will affect the way you perform and how you approach things. Go further than what you need to, do extras if you can as it’ll always benefit you later on.