RISING STARS STOKE DEBATE AROUND ICF’S MEDAL REGULATIONS
They’re the two breakout stars of the 2021 ICF Ocean Racing World Championships that have placed the event’s medals policy firmly under the microscope.
South African Uli Hart and American Ana Swetish are both Under 23 athletes who both finished in the top three overall.
Yet the pair, united by their incredible performances, flew out of the Canary Islands carrying two very different titles.
Hart left as the Under 23 World Champion.
Swetish departed with a Senior silver medal – despite proving herself as the fastest Under 23 female paddler.
Like all junior entrants, the pair could only compete in one division and decided which one that would be before the race began.
Although they’re both ecstatic with their results – and hold no complaints for the ICF – the outcome has triggered plenty of debate.
“I couldn’t be happier with a silver overall,” Swetish tells The Paddler.
“With a lot of the top athletes missing this year, I felt like I had a chance to make the Senior podium, but I definitely would have stayed in Under 23 if all the athletes were able to attend.
“This decision definitely added to the pressure of the race and I can’t say I didn’t second guess it several times, but in the end, I am happy with my decision.”
It’s a position Swetish worked tirelessly to earn.
The teenager produced a blistering second half of the race to surge into silver, just behind South African Michelle Burn and ahead of Spaniard Judit Verges Xifra.
“It was pretty intimidating going into this race, having not raced internationally in almost two years,” she says.
“I’ve been feeling strong and fit in my training, but it was really hard to know how I’d stack up against the other women around the world.
“Austin [Kieffer] encouraged me to race up to Senior women, instead of Under 23, which amped up the pressure even more.
“But I’m really proud of my result and couldn’t be happier to make it onto the podium.
“Michelle and Judit were both incredible paddlers out there, so it feels great to have been dicing with them.
“Not to mention just how fun it was to get to race in these conditions with such great competition.”
Hart is just as pleased.
Not only with his Under 23 World Championship title.
“I still don’t really have words… it’s pretty unreal,” he says.
But also with his emergence as a Senior contender.
The 20 year-old has worked hard over the past two years to improve his downwind skills, and by dicing with German powerhouse Gordan Harbrecht for second-place overall, he proved it’s paying off.
“I was really happy with how close I was to the front.” Hart says.
“I was going really well in the conditions, having lots of practice in Cape Town in those kind of messy waves.
“I figured if I could get a gap [over Harbrecht] it could be a 1, 2 for South Africa… but he’s so strong in the flat, at the end he just ground me in.
“I’m still young, there’s lots of time to race with the big boys.”
Despite being the third paddler across the finish line, Hart didn’t take home a Senior bronze medal.
Instead, that deservingly went to accomplished French talent Victor Doux, who produced an impressive performance to finish just behind the South African junior.
“I don’t mind too much,” Hart admits.
“I did get recognized for the overall, getting third place prizemoney.
“I’m still quite young so I’m happy to race Under 23… then when I’m older, when I’m a senior, I’ll have plenty of chances.”
“I did think of doing the same as Ana and enter the seniors, but I’m still young so I’d rather race where I should and get the experience.
“It’s still one race, everyone knows everyone’s names.
“Not being able to race across categories is there to protect the age groups… maybe in future if you can race in two categories that would be really cool.”
That’s where the crux of the medal debate has been centered – whether the ICF should change its rules for future World Championships to come.
Swetish’s performance provides a strong case for that and she agrees it’s something to be examined.
“It should definitely be addressed for future World Champs races,” she says.
“I have never understood why the ICF has a senior category instead of an open category.
“The fastest athletes should be recognized together for an open podium regardless of what age group they are registered in.
“As far as being recognized in two categories goes, I do not have a good answer for that.
“I do think that if a person is first in their age group and on the podium, they should be recognized for both because they did rightly achieve both.”
“That being said, I also understand being removed from your specific age group if you made the open podium, so each person is recognized only once and more young people get a chance on the podium.
“That is how it has been at most of the races I have been on the open podium at and I have had no problem with that.”