To Victor go the spoils

Victor “The Medal Maker” Kovalenko, known as the world’s greatest sailing coach, has been announced as one of the first inductees into the Australian Sailing Hall of Fame (ASHOF) alongside six more of the sport’s legends.

Photography by Australian Sailing

03 November 2017


The ceremony will take place on Friday 3 November at the Hyatt Regency in Sydney.

The honour comes after the man behind five Olympic gold medals for Australia was recognised for his exceptional contribution with an Order of Australia in 2012 and induction into the Sports Australia Hall of Fame the following year.

“Victor Kovalenko has altered the course of Australia’s achievement at the Olympic Games since coming to this country 20 years ago.  The impact he has had on our Olympic sailing program will be forever admired,” said the Australian Sailing Hall of Fame Selection Panel.

67-year-old Kovalenko said he is proud to be one of the first recipients of the ASHOF accolade. “It’s a unique privilege to be amongst the first seven individuals and groups to be inducted. Australia has a very strong performance over so many competitions so the queue to be nominated is quite long!”

“I celebrate 20 years of life in Australia and the achievements over that period, with a lot of Olympic medals brought back to Australia. But the biggest achievement was building the incredible machine that is Australian Sailing – the most powerful racing machine in the world.”


Kovalenko currently coaches 2012 Olympic gold medallist Mat Belcher and crew Will Ryan. The pair won silver at the Rio Games and earlier this year won their fourth World Championship together. Their success adds to a long list of triumphs for Kovalenko, whose own sailing career in the former Soviet Union was cut short by the USSR’s boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games.

In his early years as a coach, he led USSR’s 470 women’s team to a bronze medal at the 1988 Seoul Games and won gold and bronze in 1996 with Ukraine’s men’s and women’s 470 teams.

Kovalenko reflected on the essence of his long career, saying, “when coaching, our number one job is to teach people how to deal with pressure. We do this every day in training. There is always going to be pressure from expectations, from the motivation of friends and family, even from government. But the Australian team has a lot of experience with success; we are confident and hungry to win.”

Has the Medal Maker ever had a dream he couldn’t accomplish?

“No, I have achieved almost all of my goals. In 1988 my sailors won Race 4, in Korea [Seoul Summer Olympics]. I was so happy. I said to myself, ‘I have done something special in my life!’ I still remember these feelings. That was enough, but we went on to achieve much, much more.”

One of the long-term goals Kovalenko is always working towards is creating more visibility for the sport of sailing. “I take the World Championship medal Will Ryan gave me and I show it to show young kids, their parents, sailors, non-sailors, and let them hold it. I want to show them that with hard work, if you trust yourself, you can reach your dream.”

To mark the 20-year anniversary of his arrival in Australia, Kovalenko was lauded at a heartfelt ceremony on the evening of Thursday 2 November on board HMAS Penguin, where he hunkered down from 1997 to 2000 after leaving Ukraine.

Kovalenko recalls that initial period in his adopted country with fondness. “I was absolutely focused on my job – my wife and son were still in Ukraine. Every day I woke up to an amazing view from my cabin of Balmoral and Manly and I could hear the whispering of the ocean,” he said. “[HMAS] Penguin was the home of Australian Sailing at that time. All of us, we were working for Australia … That was the best time in my life.”

Those years of intense focus quickly paid off with the coach leading the Australian team to gold medals for both the men’s and women’s teams in the 470 class at the Sydney Olympics.

“I want to make a couple of points about Victor,” said Matt Allen, President of Australian Sailing. “He’s a very modest man, but we are standing next to the greatest Olympic sailing coach in history. It’s been 20 years since we saw the first fruits of that in Sydney in 2000. We look forward to formally inducting Victor into the Australian Sailing Hall of Fame along with six other individuals and groups.”

The upcoming Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games may be the coach’s last before retirement, so he is putting in every effort to prepare the team for the challenge, flying to Japan on a regular basis to guide the Aussies through the 2017-2018 World Cup Series. He says that Australia’s proximity to the host nation will provide an advantage in reduced long-haul travel time, but it may not all be plain sailing. “Conditions may be quite difficult – it’s all up to how much sun we have to get a good sea breeze. Australians love strong winds; we perform well in them – I call Australia “the factory of the wind”. Normally summer in Japan is very hot. So, we’ll see!”

“Our goal is to bring back more golds and world championships. We are looking for serious performance under the leadership of our new director, Iain Murray.”

Other Australian sailing greats being inducted into ASHOF include Olympians, Paralympians, round-the-world sailors, America’s Cup champions and ocean racers.

“Sailing has a long and wonderful history in Australia, and has been responsible for some of the most iconic sporting moments the country has ever seen,” said Matt Allen.

The other 2017 inductees are:

  • JENNY ARMSTRONG OAM & BELINDA STOWELL OAM, the first Australian women to win an Olympic sailing medal
  • THE TEAM OF AUSTRALIA II, the winners of the America’s Cup in 1983, breaking the USA’s 132-year domination of the trophy
  • KAY COTTEE AO, the first woman to sail single-handed, unassisted, non-stop around the world, in 1998
  • DANIEL FITZGIBBON OAM & LIESL TESCH AM, the first Australian sailing team to defend a gold medal at the Olympics or Paralympics, during the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games
  • BILL NORTHAM CBE, PETER O’DONNELL & JAMES SARGEANT, winners of Australia’s first Olympic sailing gold medal at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games
  • ROLLY TASKER AM, Australia’s first sailing world champion first and first Olympic medallist

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