Ben Ainslie has been confirmed by the BOA (British Olympic Association) as one of the first athletes to be selected to be part of Team GB for the 2012 London Olympic Games. After a hard fought qualification battle against some very talented British sailors Ainslie will now get his chance to compete for his fifth Olympic medal and fourth gold at successive Olympic Games. He will be the only athlete competing in London for a fourth Olympic gold at consecutive Games.
He admits that at the age of 35 his body is beginning to let him down. He knows there are younger, taller and stronger sailors desperate to wreck his dream of a fourth successive gold medal.
But even after the most turbulent year of his career, featuring a back injury, an embarrassing disqualification and an uncharacteristic dunking during a key pre-Games regatta, few would bet against Ben Ainslie being crowned the greatest Olympic sailor in history at London 2012.
Ainslie sighs deeply when asked about his perceived pre-eminence in the Finn class. “The reality is that it’s very tight, there’s a really good group of sailors there and any one of 10 or 12 sailors on their day are capable of going out and winning races and being tough to beat. There’s not one guy in particular who stands out as being a main rival, it’s more there’s a group of guys.”
There is a lot that can go wrong in sailing – equipment can fail, jealous competitors can work together to scupper a favourite’s chances (over the years Ainslie has been a tough, uncompromising sailor and has made one or two enemies) or an umpire can make a dodgy decision. Then you have the vagaries of the sea and wind: the combination of an unexpected gust and a rogue wave can wreck the best laid plans.
“My biggest mistake would be if I started believing I knew everything. That’s when things start going bad. You have to keep on improving, the game is always moving on. You’ve got to try to stay at the top of that.”
Ainslie, as modest and quiet off the water as he is single-minded and ruthless on it, has to be chivvied to talk about his past glories – gold medals at Sydney, Athens and Beijing. He talks more fluently about the blip – if a silver medal can be called a blip – when aged 19 he was pipped to first place at Atlanta in the Laser dinghy class by the great Brazilian sailor Robert Scheidt. Flying home with silver in 1996 rather than gold rankles.
“I still think about it a lot. At the time everyone was so excited for me that I had won a silver medal but I know how close I was to winning a gold. My immediate reaction was disappointment. I didn’t know if I’d get a chance to win a gold medal again.”
He recalls that somebody “quite experienced” took him to one side and told him that the pain of falling short could be the best thing that ever happened to him. “It certainly did give me the inspiration to go and get gold next time.”
Sure enough, four years later in Sydney Ainslie turned the tables on Scheidt. “It was a total relief. There was this huge rivalry between me and Robert Scheidt. For both of us it was a career-defining moment. If he had beaten me again he would have been, in most people’s eyes, the better sailor. I was so determined that wasn’t going to happen. The competition was on a knife edge, it was so close. To win the gold medal after such an effort and such a tough competition, against such a competitor, was just a huge relief.”
Surely there is jubilation as well as relief? “Because the Olympics only comes around once every four years and because so much goes into it, there is more relief than joy. People ask me, ‘how come you aren’t jumping out of your boat when you win?’
“It’s because you are still completely focused on what you are trying to do. Half an hour, an hour later, when you get back to shore and you’re with your family and friends it all starts to sink in and that’s a great time. The joy does come.”
Ainslie pauses and calculates when asked how long that joy of victory lasts. He is not one for the flippant response. After weighing the question carefully, he comes up with: “About three or four days.”
On the plane home from Sydney Ainslie recalls sitting next to his great mate, Iain Percy, who had also won gold. “They upgraded us to business class. We were in our early 20s, we had never flown business class. We looked at each other and said, ‘this is nice but what’s next?’
“I guess that’s the nature of competitive people. You achieve something and that’s good but you want more. It’s a bit of a drug. It’s very stressful but you crave the buzz of challenging yourself.”
Ainslie switched from the Laser to the heavier Finn dinghy class. At 6ft Ainslie is comparatively small for a Finn sailor but he put on weight and muscle and won his second gold medal in Athens in 2004.
The following year Ainslie was in Trafalgar Square when the news came through that London would host the 2012 Games. At that time he was concentrating on another of his great ambitions – winning the America’s Cup.
“I wasn’t sure if I was going to try to make Beijing but after I heard that announcement and felt the atmosphere, something inside me said: ‘You’ve got to be part of this.’ That’s when I started training for Beijing to try to continue through to London.”
The light winds in China suited Ainslie’s slighter frame and he completed the hat-trick of golds. But that did not mean making the London 2012 team was a formality.
For one thing, his body has been a problem. He underwent a back operation in January and has struggled with his ankles. “The physical side of it has been much harder this time. My body has started letting me down from time to time. In Atlanta when I was 19 I used to laugh at the sailors who had to see the physio. I thought they were complete wimps and a waste of time. Now I’m in the physio room twice a day.”
He has had to get his weight up from 78kg in Beijing to about 94kg now. That equates to many hours in the gym and a load of protein shakes.
But he believes he is as fit as possible. “For the first time in six months my body is feeling really good, I can go sailing and I’m injury and pain free. It’s a great place to be.”
A second major challenge has been the strength of depth of the British Finn sailing squad. Five of the top 10 Finn sailors are Brits and would easily make most Olympic sailing teams. Ainslie has had to dig as deep as he ever has to secure the single spot. “Those younger sailors have so much energy and ambition. That’s great, it revs everyone up. It keeps us older guys fresh and inspired.”
Having secured his place on the Olympic team, being able to train with the young bucks is a huge advantage. Most Olympic sailors have to set up training sessions and practice races with their competitors. Ainslie can work on his game with the rest of the British Finn squad. He doesn’t have to show his hand to his rivals.
“It’s a great advantage having fantastic training partners. We can train as a team, the rest have to train with and against fellow competitors. It means our training can be more focused.”
Ainslie’s form at the Finn world championships in Falmouth in May was stunning. He won seven out of nine races to take a record-breaking sixth Finn gold cup. The setting was poignant for Ainslie. He was eight when he first got into a boat at the Restronguet sailing club, just down the Cornish coast. Sailing was a family affair, his father, Roddy, skippering the yacht, Second Life, in the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973-74.
“It was a bit of a Swallows and Amazons spot, a beautiful coastline, lots of little inlets, rivers,” says Ainslie. “I had friends on the other side of the creek so quite often the only way to meet was sailing or rowing over to one another.”
After picking up the JP Morgan Asset Management Finn Gold Cup, Ainslie hosed down his boat (Olympic sailors are very hands-on), had a shower and was driven off to greet the Olympic flame as it arrived at the Culdrose naval air station. Next day he was the first to carry the torch on British soil.
But there have been lows too, since Ainslie secured his place in the GB team. At the world championships in Perth in December he was disqualified from two races after he clambered on board a media boat that he thought had got too close to the action. There were concerns that the indiscretion could cost him his place in Team GB but mercy was shown by the governing body, the Royal Yachting Association.
“It was a one-off, very extreme situation. I did overreact, which is disappointing. All I can do is apologise, which I have done, take the resulting criticism and move forwards.”
Then at the Skandia Sail for Gold regatta in Weymouth and Portland in June, Ainslie capsized in the medal race as he tried to wrestle first place from his team-mate Giles Scott, one of those bucks nipping at the main man’s ankles. “I made a mistake, we’re all human,” was a soggy Ainslie’s verdict on his return to the slipway.
He will continue working and tinkering right up to the first race. “It’s all about looking at the issues, what could I be doing better, what still needs work. I tend to concentrate on the weak areas, what can I be doing better on or off the water? There’s nothing necessarily that clever. There’s no golden bullet that’s going to make all the difference, it’s about doing the small things that little bit better.”
But those around Ainslie say that what sets him apart is his ability to put everything else to one side when the races begin. “He’s not just a good sailor, he’s Ben Ainslie,” says Nick Dempsey, who will represent GB in the men’s windsurfing. “He’s a complete competitor. If you put him in any sport when he was 12 years old he would have been successful, not because he’s talented at holding a tiller, but because he knows how to win. He’s about winning.”
John Derbyshire, who coached Ainslie until the Sydney Games and is now the performance director at the RYA, said his former charge was “nothing short of phenomenal”. “He simply does not know how to give up.”
Actually, despite what happened in Perth, Ainslie says that he may have mellowed a little. “I think in general I certainly enjoy my sailing a lot more than I used to. When I was younger I probably put far too much pressure on myself.”
If he does win in Weymouth, Ainslie will equal the four golds won by the great Danish sailor Paul Elvstrom between 1948 and 1960. Add in the silver from Atlanta and his title as the world’s greatest Olympic sailor is indisputable.
Victory in Weymouth will not prompt Ainslie to repeat Steve Redgrave’s request for someone to shoot him if he steps in a boat again. After the Olympics Ainslie will be joining the America’s Cup champions Oracle as it prepares for the 2013 event and he has also set up Ben Ainslie Racing with the aim of eventually running his own America’s Cup campaign.
But if he does win gold in Weymouth, few would be surprised if he tried to equal Redgrave’s record of five golds. It would almost certainly not be in a Finn – his body would not bear the stress – but he could move into the two-man Star keelboat class. That could set up a mouth-watering clash with Scheidt, who competes in the same event.
Last month Ainslie was given the chance to helm the 50m-long schooner, Eleonora, during the Round the Island race. It was not a serious race for Ainslie, more of a sponsor-pleasing cruise around the Isle of Wight. But he clearly relished the experience and afterwards spoke of one day getting back to a more relaxed kind of sailing.
“I started sailing in classic boats like that, my parents had a much smaller version. I love being out on the sea, I love the wind, the waves. I hope one day to get back to a sailing that is all just about being on the water and being at one with the boat.”
His opponents should seek no comfort from such a pronouncement. Ben Ainslie is not ready to sail quietly off into the sunset just yet.
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