Four years ago in atlanta, Victor Kovalenko coached two Ukrainian women, Ruslana Taran and Olena Pakholchyk, to bronze in the double-handed dinghy known as the 470. Last week, Taran and Pakholchyk again won bronze-and Kovalenko again was sitting at the medalists' press conference. But this time he was there as coach of the gold-medal winners: Australia's Belinda Stowell and Jenny Armstrong. Uncomfortable? Not at all, says Kovalenko. "When they won their medal, they came and thanked me," he says of his former Ukrainian proteges. "They are like my children too."
Kovalenko, who also coached the Ukrainian men to gold in 1996, is being thanked a lot these days. It wasn't only Australia's women who won gold in the 470 class; so did the men's team of Tom King and Mark Turnbull. It was Australia's first Olympic sailing medal for women and the nation's best Olympic sailing performance since 1972-and the sailors credit it all to their softly spoken coach.
"The quality and quantity of training has been the key," said Stowell after the win, "and Victor has been behind us in every jibe and tack." Kovalenko, said King, was "the reason we are sitting here. He gave us the chance to grow up as sportspeople."
The Australians' success in the 470 (one of nine Olympic sailing classes) caps a dazzling year. In May, King and Turnbull became the first Australians to win the world championships-having finished eighth just last year-while Stowell and Armstrong finished second in the women's event.
In Sydney, they blitzed the fleet. Going into the last of 11 races, the Australian women needed only a top-nine finish to take gold, but won the race anyway, to the delight of a flotilla of spectator craft and ferries. King and Turnbull needed to finish their last race within five places of U.S. rivals Paul Foerster and Bob Merrick-which they did, crossing the line second to the Americans. Conditions were among the best of the regatta, which was otherwise plagued by trying conditions that saw one race day cancelled for lack of wind.
The four Australians were used to the vagaries of Sydney Harbour, though rivals played down the advantage. "We all had a lot of time out there," said J.J. Isler, of the silver-winning American women's team. "It's just that the best team won."
Winning is what Kovalenko is all about. When he took over the teams in late 1997, "we had to find something special to give us a chance," he recalls, "because if we did the same as everyone else we were already a year behind." The "something special" was passion. "Sailors are businessmen, students, architects," says the coach. "But when we are out there, nothing else exists-only the sails, the boat, the waves, the enjoyment."
Team manager John Harrison rates Kovalenko the best coach he's seen. But he is still awed by the gold haul: "I knew Victor could achieve these kind of things. I just didn't know he could do it this quickly."
Understandably, the star coach has already had several international job offers. But there's hope for Australia-Kovalenko is building a house in Sydney, has applied for citizenship and loves Australian red wine. And the sailors of the small white dinghies: "They're like my kids. I couldn't do anything without them. Without them, I'm not a good coach." It's high praise-and, with their golden performances, Australia's 470 stars last week repaid it in full.