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At the mercy of Mother Nature: Why weather is everything in an Olympic windsurfer's quest for gold

Throughout the duration of the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, one group of athletes will be paying close attention to the weather forecast and, in particular, the wind as they go for the gold.

As the name of the sport would suggest, there's no bigger factor in windsurfing than the weather, as it can have a direct impact on the outcome, whether it's a slow, methodical race or an intense, high-speed thriller.

Windsurfing course racing is a very tactical sport, just like yachting, said Pete Dekay, publisher and editor-in-chief of Windsurfing Now magazine.

"The athletes need to know how to read the wind on the water and also predict what the wind will do on the racecourse," Dekay said. "They pay attention to weather forecasts and strategize accordingly."

If winds are supposed to pick up during the day, the windsurfers will note the wind direction and what that will mean for them out on the water, as well as changes in the current.

Two members of Team USA have qualified to compete in RS:X (a windsurfing discipline selected for the Olympics): Pedro Pascual of Miami and Marion Lepert of Belmont, California, who will each be appearing in their first Olympic Games.

Pascual told AccuWeather that his ideal wind speeds are 7-15 knots and that he checks the forecast every day before training and racing.

"Rio has been good for sailing overall; we have had every single wind speed from a variety of directions. It has been a great preparation for the games," Pascual said.

Some racers fare better in light winds versus stronger winds and vice versa, depending on where they train, according to Cody Steward, executive director of the non-profit US Windsurfing Association.

Steward said since Lepert is very good competing in high winds, she's had to train a lot for the light winds. He added that the borderline for what distinguishes light and strong winds is around 15 knots.

The first day of sailing competitions is slated for Aug. 8, in Marina da Glória located in Gunabara Bay, which has been the subject of many reports about rampant pollution. Just this week Australian sailors had training interrupted due to trash in the water.

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World Sailing officials completed a final review of the venue back in May, which was led by CEO Andy Hunt. According to Hunt, water quality around the launch area of the marina was noticeably better than when the group previously visited the site in March.

"During our review, we had an opportunity to meet with officials from the mayor's office and leading environmental authorities to review their latest water-quality data," Hunt said in a statement. "The trend lines are encouraging, but it will be important that not a single day is lost in implementing the remaining measures that are planned, including the installation of a series of new eco barriers."

However, a report from Reuters in June, that sourced two unpublished academic studies, said scientists had found super bacteria off beaches that will host events during the games.

In total there will be 10 sailing events over the course of the Olympics and barring any drastic last-minute changes, the competitions will take place. Pascual recently spent a 15-day training period acclimating to Guanabara Bay and did not seem worried about any health risks.

"There is a great group of professionals taking care of us," Pascual said. "We have not had any health issues while in our training camps, so I think there is no need for us to worry too much about it."

The races take place around buoys placed in a set order, Steward said. Out in the water, buoys are often situated upwind or downwind. Since racers can't sail straight upwind, the most they can do is take 45-degree angles into the wind, forcing them to zigzag their way back and forth to get to the upwind buoys, he explained.

"The strategy is leading the wind, knowing when there's a little 1- or 2-degree shift to know whether or not to tack (turning the front of the board through the wind) and go on a zig instead of a zag so to speak, or to continue your course on that particular 45-degree angle to try and get as close to the buoys as you can," Steward said.

All Olympic competitors will be using the same gear manufactured by NeilPryde Windsurfing to help keep a level playing field, according to Dekay.

Windsurfing gear mainly consists of the board, sail, fin and a wishbone-shaped object known as a boom, which is what the racers use to grip while they steer the board. Olympians will also typically wear a harness, similar to ones worn by rock climbers.

"Usually the Olympics are not held in a windy place so it's important that the gear will work in low wind so that the event will happen and medals will be awarded," said Dekay. He added that a minimum of 4 knots is usually pretty easy to obtain, but if winds are not averaging anywhere between 4 and 25 knots, an Olympic competition will not start.

Charline Picon, 2014 world champion and current European champion from France, previously told the Olympic website that Rio's course will be more challenging than London's. Due the presence of the nearby Sugar Loaf and Corcovado mountains, the winds can become unpredictable, resulting in tricky stretches of water, she said.

"You need to have good observational skills. And then there's that all-important current. You can even get two different currents in the same part of the course. It's not easy and you have to be able to adapt," Picon said.

Pascual echoed Picon's comments about the currents, saying, "Rio is one of the most mentally challenging race courses I have ever been to."

Pascual, who has been windsurfing since he was 13, said in a previous statement that he enjoys the challenges that board racing presents.

"[The RS:X] is totally different from any other Olympic [sailing] class. It's very physical, and you're standing up while going as fast as you can. I just love it," Pascual said.


Have questions, comments, or a story to share? Email Kevin Byrne at Kevin.Byrne@accuweather.com, follow him on Twitter at @Accu_Kevin. Follow us @breakingweather, or on Facebook