Never were the stakes higher than at this year’s Semaine Olympique Francaise, the World Cup in Hyères, France, on the Côte d’Azur.

This year’s regatta, featuring all sailing disciplines, including Formula Kite Men and Women, was commonly known as the “Last Chance Regatta” (LCR), as it would determine which kiteboarders would secure the last remaining five spots for the Olympic Summer Games in Paris. Of the total of only 20 nation slots available at the Olympics for men and women, the remaining 15 slots were already allocated at previous continental championships and the 2023 World Championships in The Hague. Thus, for all nations not yet qualified, it was now “all or nothing”.

As the national qualification and the selection of athletes to fill these nation slots is a two-step process, there were different approaches by sailing federations to the competition in preparation for the LCR. For example, while the USA had completed the selection process in January in Florida and thus sent only the winner of the selection, Markus Edegran, to Hyeres, Poland or Israel hoped for higher chances of securing the coveted spot by sending multiple riders into the race.

In the men’s fleet, 40 riders from 23 nations and in the women’s fleet, 22 riders from 18 nations were therefore fighting for one of the last 5 tickets to Marseille. And right from the first race day, it was evident how exciting this battle would be. Four out of five race wins went to different nations with Alexander Ehlen (MON), Dvir Azulay (ISR), and Maks Zakowski (POL). Only Kameron Maramenidis (GRE) managed to score two bullets. On the other hand, there was already a dominance by the Swiss Elena Lengwiler among the women. She won four out of five races and placed ahead of the two Polish riders, Damasiewicz and Satrjan.

On the second day, the racecourse awaited all riders with a slightly oscillating but stable southwest breeze, which meant one thing above all: Speed is King! And on this throne, after missing out on the last two qualification opportunities at the World and European Championships in 2023, Connor Bainbridge (GBR) presented himself and won all races of the day. Lengwiler also showed dominance again among the women. However, a surprise in the last race of the day was caused by the Finn Noora Ruskola, who managed to position herself in front of the entire fleet with a starboard start (start without right of way) and defended this lead until the end of the race. With this feat, she promoted herself to 5th place in the nation ranking and thus within reach of the nation ticket for the Olympics.

But the battle for nation slots among the men also became more exciting and tighter. Behind Bainbridge (GBR), two Poles, Zakowski and Marciniak, followed, showing that several intensive winter trainings on the Canary Island of Fuerteventura bore fruit and pushed the remaining nations off the podium. Among the contenders for the remaining three tickets, all within a few points apart in the top 10, were Alexander Ehlen (MON), Markus Edegran (USA), Bruce Kessler (SUI), Bernat Cortes (ESP), Kameron Maramenidis (GRE), and Dor Zarka (ISR), who spared no effort and repeatedly redefined placements 2-9 among themselves.

On the last day of the qualifier series, the goal was to reduce points as much as possible and position oneself as far ahead in the top 10 for the medal races. And the weather didn’t make it easy for the riders. With a very northern Mistral wind direction, the start was initially postponed until a certain wind direction had prevailed, only to then must choose the right kite size in gusty, offshore wind. The announcement from race director Mirco Babini over the radio “9-22 knots from 235°” did not exactly help to calm nerves, and there was incredible tension in the launching area, which is usually dominated by chatter and jokes. When the riders finally started with predominantly 11 or 15m² VMG², it quickly became clear that today, not only speed but above all a good overview of fast wind shifts would be the key to success. Caused by the offshore wind and the relatively hilly landscape around Hyeres, the wind sent winds rotating up to 35° over the racecourse, which could only be recognized by the different ripples of the water.

After a total of 14 races of the qualifying series, the finalists were determined in the evening. In the women’s category, 7 nations were to compete for the 5 available slots on the final day, and in the men’s category, there were even 8 different countries filling the top 10 and participating in the medal races. The hoisting of the “Delta” flag at 12:50 meant the starting shot for what were probably the most significant semi-finals to date in the young history of Formula Kite. The semi-finals, in which the athletes had to score race wins to advance to the final, were decided directly by the Polish Izabella Satrjan and Derin Atakan (TUR) among the women, so the final awarded three of the Olympic tickets to SUI, POL, and TUR.

With the points earned in the qualification series, Alina Kornelli secured the fourth nation ticket, and the fifth ticket was to be awarded in the indirect comparison between Mafalda Pires de Lima (POR) and Noora Ruskola (FIN). Ruskola narrowly missed the third place in her semi-final, so it was now up to de Lima to achieve at least one place better than Ruskola in her semi-final. In a tight battle with Marina Vodisek (SLO), de Lima showed absolute nerve strength, overtook the Slovenian on the last downwind leg, and secured Portugal the first place at the Olympic Games.

But not only the women know how to keep the audience on the beach in suspense. In total, six Semi-Finals had to be sailed among the men to determine which two riders would fill the remaining spots in the final. In Semi-Final B, it was Edegran (USA) who demonstrated with two consecutive race wins why he won the internal US qualifications and could also leave Maramenidis (GRE) behind. In Semi-Final A, however, an incredible situation occurred.

After three races, each participant had at least one race win – either through one of the Semi-Final races or through the points taken from the qualifier series. When the Pole Marciniak almost had his final berth in the bag, he crashed at the last mark 200m before the finish, allowing Bruce Kessler (SUI) to claim his race victory. The atmosphere on the beach was barely containable; the entire Swiss team was ecstatic and cheered on their compatriot to secure another victory and thus the fifth male nation slot. But in the last Semi-Final, Marciniak (POL) sealed the deal, sailing with a slightly higher line on port towards the layline, able to keep an eye on the other riders through this move and set the turn exactly at the right time, as well as being the first around the first windward mark. This time, he held onto the lead until the finish and qualified for the final, so the male nation tickets ultimately went to Great Britain, Poland, USA, Greece, and Israel.

After this physically and mentally exciting competition, the riders now deserve a short break before returning to full action in two weeks at the same event spot in Hyeres with the World Championship. For many nations, this will also be the decisive competition to select the riders who will fill the acquired nation slots, such as the German duel between Florian Gruber and Jannis Maus, or the Polish duel between Jan Marciniak and Maks Zakowski.


Schreibende Hand written by Jannis Maus
photos by IKA / Robert Hajduk

The FLYSURFER team congratulates all riders on their fantastic performance!
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