When it comes to the Olympics, Newfoundland and Labrador’s greatest achievement is surely the 2006 gold medal won by Brad Gushue and his curling team. However, two provincial sailors have their sights set on a goal that would match — if not beat — that, as they aim to be the first Newfoundlanders to win gold at a summer games.

In August last year, Jonathan Ladha and Daniel Inkpen of St. John’s won the national championships, having already become the first provincial sailors to reach Canada’s national team. This year sees them crank their ambitions up another notch, as they focus on qualifying for the 2012 London Olympics.

“It is the fastest Olympic class boat, and therefore one of the hardest to keep upright, but the fun is worth the pain.” –Jonathan Ladha

Ladha and Inkpen compete in the 49er class, sailing a type of boat that Ladha describes as being “like a surfboard powered by three big sails.”

“It is the fastest Olympic class boat, and therefore one of the hardest to keep upright,” says Ladha, “but the fun is worth the pain.”

The pair started racing together in 2004, in the smaller 29er class, and won a bronze medal at the 2005 Canada Games in Regina, Sask.

In 2008, they bought their first 49er, an old boat that they began testing in Conception Bay. The N.L. summer sailing season is inevitably short, but Ladha says that the province “is actually one of the best places for sailing because there is no shortage of wind.”

He notes also, however, that sailing here “is difficult for small boats, because the conditions can get stormy very quickly.”

Joining forces

It also doesn’t help when you’re the only 49er in the province, so joining the Canadian sailing team in 2009 was critical to their chances of becoming internationally competitive.

In August last year, the value of this switch was proven as Ladha and Inkpen became national champions. Competing in Kingston, Ont., they led the class for most of the early stages, dropped back on the penultimate day, only to fight back and claim the title in the last race.

“Right before we were called up to the podium,” Ladha recalls, “I looked at Dan and said, ‘This is the best day of my life, is that sad?’ It felt amazing to beat people that are way more experienced than us, but that’s what we have to do in order to make it to the Olympics.”

Right now they’re in Palma de Mallorca, Spain, preparing for a World Cup event that starts on April 2.

“The Euro circuit is pretty tough,” says Ladha, “not only is everybody really good, but there are a lot of back to back events. We’ll be in Europe competing in a series of six-day events almost every other week until July.”

“The Euro circuit is pretty tough — not only is everybody really good, but there are a lot of back to back events. We’ll be in Europe competing in a series of six-day events almost every other week until July.” –Jonathan Ladha

At the end of 2011, their attention will turn to the World Championships in Perth, Australia, which double up as the first Olympic qualifying event.

“There will be 100 boats,” Ladha explains, “and if we get into the top ten — and are the top Canadian boat — then we go to the Olympics.”

If no Canadian boat makes the top ten, then Ladha and Inkpen get a second bite of the cherry in May 2012, in Zadar, Croatia.

And then, if all goes well, they’ll be sailing for England in July. The Olympic sailing competitions will take place off Weymouth & Portland, in the southern English county of Dorset.

For centuries, British sailors left that coast for the rich grounds of Newfoundland, hoping to come back with a record haul. Perhaps Ladha and Inkpen will turn history on its head, and bring some bounty back across the Atlantic.

For more information on Ladha and Inkpen’s bid for gold, including pictures and videos of them in action, you can visit NLforGold.com