With the academic year winding down and the stresses of being a full-time student glaringly apparent, it’s hard to imagine that someone training for the Olympics could also be a full-time university student. But that’s precisely what University of Toronto student Arthur Ferguson and his twin brother John (who attends the University of Calgary) are doing. Together, they make up Ferguson Sailing, a team of Olympic hopefuls in the 49er sailing class.
Originally from Nova Scotia where they began sailing as a hobby, the brothers moved to Rio de Janeiro, Brazil with their parents in 2009. There their hobby became much more serious.
“When we moved to Brazil we hooked up with a team and a really good coach in a class called the 420, which is a youth class,” Arthur Ferguson explains. “We started sailing every weekend, bought a boat and sailed non-stop all year round, and that’s where we made our really significant improvements, and it allowed us to be where we are now.”
In 2011, they moved back to Canada to attend university, and made the switch to the 49er class.
The name 49er comes from the size of the boat itself, which is a two-handed high performance skiff. The boat requires top physical performers with excellent strategy skills. The 49er class only made its debut at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
“We wanted to go further with sailing, and the next step was an attempt at the Olympic spot,” John recalls. “The 49er was just the choice that made the most sense to us — we wanted to go faster, we wanted to have more of a challenge, and the 49er was kind of what presented itself.”
Arthur concurs: “We always had the image of going to the Olympics. That was the goal, and now we’re just trying to make it a reality.”
With results at various events matching their lofty ambition, their goal suddenly seems attainable. Ferguson Sailing placed seventh in both the 2012 49er North Americans and the 2012 49er cork ocr, and sixth in the 2012 49er Canadian Championships. What proved to be the biggest accomplishment of all, however, was finishing as the top Canadian boat in their first regatta abroad in Lake Garda, Italy at the 2012 49er Europeans. This competition had special meaning to the brothers, as their results proved that they could indeed compete and place among the top sailors in the world.
Toronto has played a major role in their journey to the Olympics. Not only are they based out of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club in Toronto, but Arthur also chose to attend the University of Toronto to study political science. “I was accepted to several universities throughout Canada, but I knew U of T was one of the if not the best–ranked, and it was in a really big city, right downtown, which is what I wanted coming from another big city,” he explains.
What is perhaps most impressive about these brothers is that although they are constantly travelling around the world to train and compete, they continue to be full-time students. “I think education is really important, otherwise we would probably just be doing sailing,” John says. “But I think it’s important for us to do both; to achieve good results in both, and I think they complement each other nicely.”
The Ferguson Sailing team will eventually have to put school on hold as 2016 drews closer. “This is the first year after the Olympics so it’s a smaller, low–scale year, and that’s how we can manage school at the same time,” Arthur admits. “I think as we get closer to 2016 we’re going to take some time off of school to focus on the sailing.”
During the winter, the brothers head down to Miami, Florida for training camps and one of the most important competitions for Olympic hopefuls — the Miami Olympic Class Regatta, one of the main stops in the winter circuit for sailors campaigning for the Olympics.
Ferguson Sailing has found great success. However, like every athlete, they have faced challenges and obstacles along the way. After physical injury, the worst thing that can happen to a sailor is gear failure, and at this year’s Miami ocr, the brothers encountered technical problems that saw their mast snap and their regatta ended.
“We were really looking forward to it, and we’d [trained] twice before the event down there. We were feeling pretty good,” John says,
“We were only actually able to sail five out of 20 races on working equipment, which was a big disappointment for us because we weren’t able to show how we can sail and the level we can compete at,” Arthur admits. “We had some really good races when our gear was working and it showed that were capable of sailing at that level I think, but overall it was quite a disappointing regatta.”
However, the Fergusons haven’t let their disappointment at the ocr affect their campaign. They have a series of training camps and competitions in both North America and Europe lined up in the coming months, where they hope to continue improving and pushing forward in their dream of making the Olympics. They are also focusing on making big fundraising pushes in the next few months. Sailing is a very expensive sport, what with significant equipment, coaching, and travel costs. While they’ve received significant private support, in order to make this dream a reality they need to take it to the next level with corporate sponsors. Launching in the next few weeks is a unique project called Pursuit.
“Pursuit is a micro funding website set up by a Canadian athlete for amateur athletes to raise money through the small give back method,” explained Arthur. “We set a goal, make a video, spread it to all our friends and social networks. You can give certain amounts, and for those amounts, you can get small tokens of our appreciation.” Every little bit helps, and for the brothers it’s about making people part of the team and creating a community around this journey.
Given the time that they spent in Brazil, representing Canada at the 2016 Rio Olympics would be very special for the Fergusons, according to Arthur. “I think it would mean a lot to us to prove to ourselves and everybody who supported us that you know the hard work pays off and we’ve made it a reality and we’ve got a great support network behind us.”