Summer song hits right note

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2012, 12:00am


Her name itself evokes a happy picture of a balmy day out on the water with the sails filled with breeze and the sun on your back while your favourite melody lifts your spirits higher and higher.

Summer Song Xiaqun smiles when the translator tells her of the uplifting inheritance that her parents, poor farmers from a small Zhejiang village, have bestowed on her. She has already made them happy by representing China at the Olympics; now she hopes to make them even more proud by being part of the China Team as the mainland go in hunt of America's Cup glory in 2013.

'My biggest accomplishment was representing China as a sailor at the 2008 Beijing Olympics,' says Song, who at the time would have felt she couldn't better that achievement. 'But now my ambition is to be part of China Team and winning the America's Cup.'

Song, 34, is the first woman to be recruited by China Team, who are making their second attempt at becoming the challenger in probably the most famous sailing event in the world, the America's Cup.

The mainland's debut in 2007 was less than successful, but with a bigger budget and a huge change in approach, confidence is bubbling within the team, who are funded by billionaire Wang Chaoyang.

Last time out, the team finished bottom. But more disappointing was that China's first venture into the blue-riband event was met with lukewarm interest across the country. Few people took notice of a boat, which despite being bedecked in national colours and the country's flag, failed to fire the imagination of the people.

'In 2007 there were no Chinese sailors on the boat and as a result, it failed to excite the home nation,' said Noelle Gahan-Smulders, a spokesperson for the team.

'China Team, in 2013, aspire to be truly Chinese. It needs to be powered by mainly Chinese sailors.'

Because event rules state that boats must be built in the country they represent, the AC72, the 72-foot catamaran that will compete in the America's Cup proper, will be the most technologically advanced boat of its type ever built in China, giving added pride to the challenge.

Six Chinese sailors crewed in 2007, but they mostly took a backseat and hardly made any waves in the media. This time around, China Team have actively pursued athletes and other people who could create interest. They want their own reality show, with plans to follow each athlete as he or she comes to grips with sailing.

It won't be so hard for Song, who is used to having a deck under her feet: she was 17 when she first started sailing. She was quickly pencilled in as a prospect and it wasn't long before she was part of the Zhejiang province sailing team.

'I was China national champion for six years in a row [in the 470 class],' Song said.

'In 2002 I won the Asian Games gold medal, and then my focus was on being part of the women's Olympic team in 2008 in Qingdao.' She finished eighth in the Yngling class at the Beijing Olympics.

Despite her failure to win an Olympic medal, she registered on the radar of team management. Like Ma Jian - the first Chinese to play college basketball in the United States who is also in China Team - Song was targeted by Thierry Barot, the Hong Kong-based chief executive of the team.

'I met Thierry a few years ago during one of the races and we have always kept in touch,' Song said. 'He knows my strengths and also where I need to improve. We spoke about China Team before and I always told him that I would be keen to try out.'

Last October, Barot began the process to identify and recruit potential Chinese who could help raise the profile of the team on the mainland. Ma was the first to come on board. Song is the first woman.

'Thierry told me that the timing is now and asked me to join the team,' Song said. 'My first race with China Team will be in the Extreme Sailing Series in Qingdao next week. I am really excited to be a part of the team and I'm looking forward to this opportunity to sail at a higher level.'

Barot knows it will be a tough task to identify, and then get the local crew ready in time for the America's Cup in San Francisco in July 2013.

'We have committed from the start to have a number of Chinese sailors as part of the crew, and we will get there, but it won't be easy,' Barot said. 'We are recruiting Chinese sailors who will go through the training programme that will start in June at our training base in Sanya. We now have two Chinese sailors who have been announced and also have a list of 20 who fit the requirements and are ready to start training.

'Summer is the only woman so far, and yes, because the catamarans are a lot more physical, it's going to be tough for Summer or for any other female recruit, but we believe that it is possible and China Team would be delighted to have one or more Chinese female sailors on the America's Cup 72s.'

Her first taste of China Team won't be on a 72. The Extreme Sailing Series is on 40-footers, and the team are currently competing and training on 45-footers. But even they are considerably different to the keelboats she sailed at the Olympics.

'I think this [America's Cup ] isn't a boat designed for female sailors,' Song said. 'It will be a big challenge for me. Not just for me, but for most female sailors. On the boats that I have sailed on, there needs to be a combination of skill and some physical strength.

'On the 45s and 72s, the level of physical strength required is much more, so it will be very challenging for women sailors.

'We will need to find the right place for us on the boat, where our skills will matter more than the physical aspect.'

At the Qingdao event, which begins on Tuesday, Song will be under the eye of New Zealander Phil Robertson, China Team's skipper.

'Qingdao will be a great opportunity to showcase to our local crowd that we can match it with the best in the world. We are looking forward to some home support,' said the 25-year-old Robertson.

One thing going in Song's favour is that she will be on home waters, having trained there for many years in the run-up to Beijing. But this is a new, and thrilling, adventure.

'To be the first Chinese female America's Cup sailor, wow, that is the most exciting thing that I can think of,' Song gushed. 'This is a dream challenge for most sailors, but most Chinese women sailors don't even dream that because it seems so impossible, and suddenly for me, it becomes a dream come true, one that I can chase because it is real.'