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'It's a long game': Young Pilkington on Olympic push, learning from the best

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Whenever Greta Pilkington pushes off the beach these days, she glances at the letter P scribbled on the back of her hand. 

But as much as the 20-year-old ILCA 6 sailor's focus over the coming months will be on gaining selection for the Olympic Games in Paris in July and August, the P does not represent the French capital. 

"It stands for process," Pilkington says. "I write it down to remind myself to focus on the process and not the outcome. To only think about the next thing you're trying to get right - first the starting sequence, then the first beat and so on. It's easy to be outcome-focused, to think about winning the race rather than concentrating on what will get you there." 

It's a ritual that has played a big part in her recent success, culminating in New Zealand securing a spot on the ILCA 6 start line at the Games, and underpins her efforts to be the first Kiwi sailor in the class, formerly known as the Laser Radial, to sail at the four-yearly showpiece since 2012. 

To be considered for selection, Pilkington must be among the top 16 nations at either the Princess Sofia Regatta in Palma in March and April, or the French Olympic Week in Hyeres a fortnight later. 

"It would be a dream come true, but Paris is not the end goal for me," she said. "I have to look beyond that as the outcome - there's also Los Angeles in 2028 and Brisbane in 2032. In terms of ILCA sailing, I am only at the start of my journey." 


Greta Pilkington qualified a country spot in the ILCA 6 class with her result at Sail Sydney. Photo / Jacob Fewtrell Media

It's been a busy time for Pilkington on and off the water. She completed her three-year Bachelor of Architecture degree at Auckland University of Technology in November, before jumping on a plane to compete at Sail Melbourne and Sail Sydney - her performance at the latter qualifying New Zealand in the class for Paris.  

"I decided some time ago that I wanted to try and do both sailing and studying at the same pace," said Pilkington, who will soon start an internship at a leading Auckland-based architecture firm. 

"I am entirely dedicated to my sailing but it's important to me to also have something outside of the sport. Naturally, I had to compromise a bit on both sides [sailing and studying] but it worked out in the end." 

Pilkington finished sixth in Sydney after a similar result in Melbourne and started 2024 by narrowly missing out on the gold fleet at the world championships in Mar del Plata. 

She admits to still being intimidated when lining up next to the world's best ILCA 6 sailors, some almost twice her age. 

"I've only competed in four world championships - one being the under-21 worlds [in Vilamoura, Portugal] in 2022. The first one was in Melbourne in 2020, when I was only 16 but I remember racing against [Dutch triple Olympic medallist and multiple world champion] Marit Bouwmeester. 

"I wanted to try and win the [starting] pin. I managed to do it with Marit above me, rounding the top mark in fifth. It didn't matter that I was over by about 30cm at the start. I had never been more excited and I remember thinking it was the coolest thing ever and that I wanted to keep sailing against her." 


Pilkington finished 84th at the sailing world championships in August. Photo / Sailing Energy

She had another opportunity at the combined world championships in The Hague in August, where Bouwmeester finished fourth overall with Pilkington 84th in the 110-boat fleet. 

"It was intimidating being next to these top sailors in the boat park but at the same time, it was an amazing experience - just realising that they started where I am now and seeing all the time and effort they've put in to get to the top. It shows the amount of growth I still have to do, but that's also exciting," Pilkington said. 

"At that level, you know a bad start will mean you'll have 59 other boats in front of you that you'll need to get through. It's daunting at times, but I am slowly getting more confident and when you do get those small little things right it feels like a massive reward." 

The experience of triple Olympian and 2000 gold medallist Jenny Armstrong, Yachting New Zealand's ILCA 6 programme manager, has been a big boon, Pilkington said. 

"Jenny has won at the highest level and she knows what it takes.

"Paris would be great, but I need to be patient. The amount of experience doesn't just happen overnight, especially in the ILCA 6. It's a long game."