Demure, determined and deadly: the Egnot enigma

Click to follow
Stuart Alexander reports from San Diego on the woman leading Cubed's challenge for sailing's America's Cup

Leslie Egnot knows how to handle an interview by now. The potted biography rolls out in an easy, rehearsed manner. Interjections do not stop the steady flow of the script. The smile is Sunday school sweet and the demure, almost deferential, manner reminiscent of a bridesmaid at a country wedding.

This is not the real Leslie Egnot, also Mrs Dave Johnson. Her husband also works for the America3 America's Cup defence syndicate of which she is skipper, having given up property development in Auckland. Egnot does not look her 32 years, but has raced a lot of miles in harsh, physical conditions. Nor does she look like a hard-nosed competitor, but she has been groomed in the uncompromising school of New Zealand yachting. And if Egnot were nailing you to the floor, she would probably still have a winning smile.

When the America's Cup defender trials are whittled down to two contenders, expect Egnot to be leading one of them and to form part of a remarkable three-quarters of skippers/helmsmen in the defender and challenger finals who have won Olympic medals for New Zealand.

The other two are both contesting the Louis Vuitton Cup, Russell Coutts, gold in 1984, for Team New Zealand, and Rod Davis, silver in 1992 (though he had already won gold for America in 1984), in oneAustralia. The fourth - and the one determined to deny Egnot, the rest of the women crewing the 75ft yacht and the millions supporting their dream - is Kevin Mahaney, an all-American boy from a wealthy East Coast family.

Egnot started sailing at 12, says she took to it straight away - "just fell in love with everything about sailing" - immediately went racing, and attributes her talent and inclination to her maternal grandfather, whose Christian name she was given and who, in fairy-tale manner, went to sea at 13 and made his way around the world. From then on it was racing, racing and more racing, accompanied by dutiful parents.

So Egnot is used to pressure. She was, after all, one of a small number of women competing against men, and won one of the hardest events of all in New Zealand, the youth P class championship, the Tauranga Cup. That was in 1979, when she became the first woman to have won it and went into the 470 dinghy, where she started with a male crew before the class split into men's and women's divisions.

Egnot was a reserve at the Seoul Olympics in 1988 and won the New Zealand place in 1992 to take silver in a regatta dominated by Spain's Theresa Zabell, beating America's Jennifer "JJ" Isler into the bronze place.

The route to recruitment for Bill Koch's all-woman experiment was through Dawn Riley. Riley, who had been in Koch's 1992 squad and is the team captain of what was originally the 1995 all-women's crew, had sailed with Egnot. She knew she had dual citizenship, born in South Carolina of a New Zealand mother and an American serviceman father.

Her accent, however, is pure Kiwi and it is back to Auckland that she will go after this stint in America is over. The plan then is to try for the New Zealand 470 place again in the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where the regatta is in Savannah. She will again have Jane Shearer, the wife of TNZ tactician, Murray Jones, as crew.

There would be no point in going back unless it was for gold, and it is a measure of the underlying competitive streak in Egnot that she is looking that far ahead, although there is an undercurrent that this will be one last time before giving serious consideration to raising a family.

It is on the cool, mental approach that she has directed considerable attention, recognising that sports psychology was an area of her game that needed some work. There is no shortage of analysis and advice on that element in the America3 set-up.

So there is some difficulty in finding the real Leslie Egnot, if suspicion is allowed to push the outer image aside. She is no feminist wanting to make a gender statement and having a hefty dig at men in the process. Rather, she is of the co-ed school that just wants to see women taking their place alongside men on merit at the top end of sailing.

But sometimes the "I'm so thrilled" and "I'm so fortunate" and the repetition of the quaint "gosh" does not tally with the wilful streak. Witness the fact that "JJ" Isler, the starting helmsman and tactician on Cubed, was not only dropped but replaced by a man after what were said to be crew discussions, but sounded terribly like a conspiratorial coup.

For the moment, Egnot is focused on beating the other two syndicates chasing the America's Cup defence place on behalf of the United States and, in seasoned fashion, she says she is taking one race at a time until that job is complete.

The physical strain has been considerable, leading to the need for a neck brace recently, and she is relieved that there are 100 others to sort out the programme, design the changes, and coach the players. But sailing talent, a feel for a boat, being able to sniff the opportunities on a course, are not restricted to one gender. For herself, her crew, and many young female sailors to come, she feels she is making a positive contribution. "We are closing the gap, and we are here to win, not make a statement," she says.