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What makes Ben Ainslie so good?

Rob Hodgetts | 12:43 UK time, Friday, 8 August 2008

Read any guide to British medal hopes for the Olympics and you are sure to come across the name of Ben Ainslie.

The 31-year-old sailor is going for a third straight gold, which would make him Britain's most successful Olympic sailor and put him ahead of the likes of Sebastian Coe, Daley Thompson and Dame Kelly Holmes in the gold medal tally and one behind the national treasure that is Matthew Pinsent.

Ainslie won the single-handed Laser class in Sydney in 2000 and the heavier one-man Finn class in Athens and goes to China as the five-time Finn world champion.

But just what is it that makes Ainslie so good?

Ben Ainslie on the water in Qingdao

To find out, I first quizzed Team GB sailing manager Stephen Park at a pre-Olympics bash in London.

"He's unbeaten recently so he has a huge mental advantage right from the start," said Park.

"Ben is very targeted in which regattas he races in now, but when he does line up the rest of the field is effectively racing for second place.

"The key to his success is probably his incredible ability to turn around a race that's not going very well.

"Normally in sailing you count your best 10 scores from 11 races. It's important to have some good races but what Ben does very well is if he doesn't have a good start, say, he's able to claw back a good result and make that a counter."

Ainslie demonstrated this trait to spectacular effect in Athens four years ago.

After coming 10th in race one, Ainslie was then disqualified from race two after Frenchman Guillaume Florent protested that the Englishman had impeded him.

That put Ainslie 19th overall but it also proved the catalyst for one of the great sporting comebacks.

He retaliated with wins in both races the next day and added two more firsts, two seconds, a third and a fourth to virtually wrap up the regatta before the final day.

"Technically he's very good - you have to be in the Olympics - but there's no doubt being mentally tough is crucial in our sport," added Park.

"It can go on for a long period of time, not just each race, which can be up to an hour-and-a-half long, but it can start on day one of the Olympics and might still be going on day 13, depending on the weather.

"You've got to be like a coiled spring and ready to switch on, focus and deliver at any given moment."

Another example of Ainslie's single-minded will to win, and perhaps the iconic moment for which he will be most remembered, is when he won an epic duel against Brazilian nemesis Robert Scheidt to win gold in Sydney.

Scheidt was the man who pipped him to the title four years earlier in Atlanta and Ainslie was out for revenge.

Going into the final race, Scheidt only needed to finish in the top 20 to secure gold but Ainslie took the fight to the Brazilian and enmeshed him in a private head-to-head at the back of the fleet.

He forced Scheidt into an error which led to his disqualification.

The aggressive, coldly calculating Ainslie won gold and launched himself into the big time. (With it, he incurred death threats while people burned effigies of him in Scheidt's home town of Sao Paulo.)

"It is a bit of stubbornness, a refusal to give in and with all his experience now he's got one of the coolest heads in the business," said Paul Goodison, Britain's Laser representative in Beijing and Ainslie's training partner in Sydney.

"I experienced close up just how meticulous he was. He was so focused on making sure all the small pieces of the jigsaw were in place so that the whole big picture came together. That's the difference between winning and losing.

"But he is also just amazingly talented. Some people can work at it all their life and never get there, while some people don't have to work very hard.

"Ben has got the talent and the workmanship, so you put the two things together and you can't really go wrong."

When I asked Ainslie himself what makes him so good, he went all modest and polite on me and dished out plaudits to the team around him.

He does admit that you have to be mentally tough on the race course and you can't let yourself be pushed around.

But he also revealed that these days it's the chess-like strategy of the discipline that fires him up.

"The Laser is a much more dynamic boat, tactically things happen very quickly and so it's much more instinctive, which is fine and that's good to learn that at a young age," he said.

"But because the Finn is bigger and heavier you have to think ahead a little bit more. You can't do two tacks in two seconds like you can in a Laser, so you have to be a bit more strategic. That seems to suit my style and I like it."

For a final perspective on Ainslie, I asked accomplished round-the-world sailor Alex Thomson, while sailing on his boat Hugo Boss in the Artemis Challenge around the Isle of Wight.

"Right now, he is the best sailor in the world, no doubt about that," said Thomson. "Potentially, he could be the greatest sailor the world has ever seen and I think he's probably going to get there.

"But I do feel sorry for him for the amount of pressure he gets. He's a foregone conclusion to win gold in most people's eyes."

Ainslie claims, publicly anyway, that the weight of expectation doesn't affect him. It's only his own desire to succeed that creates any pressure, he says.

"In sailing it's impossible to be complacent because it's such a diverse sport," he said.

"And certainly with the conditions in China, your past history and past results don't mean anything."

They don't, but try telling that to Ainslie's rivals on the start line.


  • Comment number 1.

    Captain of an America's cup team , world champion again and again and again and again and again in the Finn class ,two olympic golds and a silver ...probably the best sailor since Sir Francis Drake.

  • Comment number 2.

    Interesting article and should be interesting viewing. Perhaps if more events were about strategy and skill and not raw performance the Olympics would be closer to the spectacle we crave.

  • Comment number 3.

    good to hear an intelligent piece about sailing via the BEEB. Ben Ainslee learned his sailing down this way on the Fal, amongst the best sailing waters anywhere.. Can anyone say why the BBC coverage of sailing in the olympics is so poor, is it a technical problem or are they just not interested ?

  • Comment number 4.

    Ben raced in a pre-Olympic Regatta in Savannah, Georgia in October 1995 using a
    boat provided by the RYA. I don't remember
    talking to Ben but I spent an hour or more talking with his father who was fairing the hull of the scratched-up beater he had been allocated. Ben inherited good genes since his father sailed in the first Whitbread and like all of us he owes much to his parents who were his first sponsors. Hopefully I'll get lucky and meet Ben and his family again. The last time I saw them was at the awards ceremony in Savannah when Ben got his first Olympic medal. Little did we know what the future held. Also for Shirley Robertson who finished without a medal and was deservedly chosen to carry the Union Jack into the stadium for team GBR, some small compensation. For those who complain about the support Team GBR receives we should remember it's little compared with what athletes receive in less benevolent nations. And none of the sailors get their start in the coastal waters of Oz or in Florida, but in less inviting water off the coast of the British Isles or in inland lakes and reservoirs.

    Long may Team GBR reign.


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