Body & Fitness

Kiwi sailor Erica Dawson’s brave return

After a painful boating accident, the yachtie can't wait to get back on the water and shine

To be the best of the best in any sport requires mammoth amounts of grit and determination – but for Kiwi sailor Erica Dawson, it has meant overcoming a serious injury to chase her dreams.

She has been going head to head against world-class sailors in the SailGP Championship, but just a year ago, a shock accident almost crushed her chances of success.

“We were at a training camp in Australia, and I fell off the boat and hit the rudder and broke my fibula,” says Erica, explaining how the trapeze wire she was hooked into snapped as they travelled close to 20 knots. “It was a scary time because it was uncertain whether or not I’d be able to compete.”

Just five weeks out from competition at the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games, the 27-year-old refused to let the broken bone stand in her way.

“I never thought it was over, that it was never going to happen for me,” she says. After an intense treatment plan with rehab and physio, within weeks Erica was soon back on the water.

‘It was an interesting experience being wheeled through the airport’

“It was an interesting experience being wheeled through the airport on my way to the Olympic Games,” she laughs.

Though she, along with sailing partner Micah Wilkinson, didn’t get the result they wanted – they came 12th in the mixed Nacra competition – Erica says it is still one of her proudest sporting moments. “I was so grateful that I got there. It definitely made it special.”

And now the athlete is hitting the high seas again, but this time with two-time America’s Cup champions and Olympic gold medallists Peter Burling and Blair Tuke in the second season of the SailGP.

It sees eight teams, made up of the best sailors from around the world, representing their country as they compete in some of the most beautiful locations on the globe.

“I love being out on the water and feeling connected to the ocean. But I’m also a very competitive person, so I love racing,” Erica laughs. “The New Zealand team has some pretty incredible sailors, so it’s awesome to be a part of that.”

In action with Micah at the Tokyo Games

At the final in San Francisco this weekend, Team New Zealand is set to take out the Impact League, which ranks teams based on the positive actions taken to reduce their carbon footprints and accelerating inclusivity in the league.

Erica is one of the first eight female athletes to join a SailGP team as part of its Women’s Pathway Program, which was started to promote diversity and give more female athletes the chance to compete at the highest level.

“I think it’s really cool and it’s time it happened. I feel very lucky to have been given this opportunity,” she enthuses. “I think we are going to see more and more women becoming involved. Watch this space!”

It is just one more experience that as a youngster she could only dream of. Both her dad Peter and older brother Jamie are keen sailors, and Erica spent her childhood sitting at Murray’s Bay Sailing Club on Auckland’s North Shore waiting for the day she could join them out on the ocean.

“My brother was doing the sailing programme and I would just hang around the yacht club waiting for my turn because I wasn’t old enough yet.”

As part of the SailGP team, Erica is sailing alongside NZ yachting heroes

She’s loved it ever since, and Erica admits even when she’s not in a boat, you are still most likely to find her on the water – the sea is her happy place. She loves to wind foil and surf, and it’s also where she met her boyfriend of three years, Matt Steven, who is also a passionate yachtsman, after they bonded sailing together on an 18-foot skiff.

But although she always loved sailing, Erica admits she wasn’t sure it was something she could pursue outside of school, until she watched her friend Jo Aleh, 35, win a gold medal at the 2012 London Olympics.

“Watching Jo do well was really motivating to me. I thought, ‘If she can do it, then I’m keen to give it a crack.’

“She ended up being my sailing coach at the Olympics, so it came full circle, which is really amazing.”

And while Erica has her eyes set on a medal in the 2024 Paris Games, she admits it hasn’t been an easy journey trying to find the right space for her within the sport.

“There have been quite a few challenges along the way, with changing partnerships and things ending. Finding the right path can be really tricky.”

But through changing teams, switching boat classes and even having to learn a whole new role, Erica has always been focused on the bigger picture.

“I think it’s really important to make sure you’re enjoying the journey. You can’t have your happiness determined by results, otherwise you will always be disappointed if you don’t get the top spot.”

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