Wake-up call for GB's Olympic sailing hopefuls
Two years out from the Olympics, British sailing has received a bit of a wake-up call.
Nothing too dramatic, but a little nudge, an elbow, a quiet 'ahem' to start narrowing the focus to Weymouth in 2012.
All might seem in order, with six medals from the 10 Olympic classes at the prestigious Sail for Gold regatta, the finale to the World Cup series, held at the Games venue. That's alongside two medals from the three Paralympic disciplines.
But one gold, one silver and four bronzes is a slightly lacklustre tally from the nation that came out top in sailing at the last three Games, a haul which included six medals - four golds, a silver and a bronze - in Beijing in 2008.
The sole gold in Weymouth this weekend was won by Giles Scott, a 23-year-old who in all probability will be passed over for triple Olympic champion Ben Ainslie for the Finn spot in the team for 2012.
"Overall we're on the right track but a few of them will be a little bit disappointed," Team GB Olympic sailing boss Stephen Park told me. "But, in a strange way, that's not such a bad place to be because one of our big concerns is making sure people don't get complacent."
Two years away from the Olympics, preparation and form will always be in a state of flux.
Sail for Gold was Ainslie's first regatta back in a Finn since winning in Beijing. He has been concentrating on big-boat duties with Team Origin as he pursues his dream of winning the America's Cup some day. Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson added victory at the Star Worlds in Brazil earlier this year to their Beijing Olympic crown but have also been busy with Team Origin.
Add to that another two-time Olympic champion Sarah Ayton struggling in her new class after the Yngling was retired and you are starting to get a bit light on the usual sources of metalwork.
Ainslie, who was unbeaten in the Finn between Athens and Beijing, claimed he was lacking specific fitness, was below his optimum weight and was just keen to place in the top 10 in Weymouth.
But when he surged into second ahead of the final medal race, I asked if he was surprised at how well he was doing. Ainslie bridled. "In what way?" he fired back. "Well, you said..."
Ainslie ended up fourth and then insisted he would be "surprised" if anyone thought he could win having been away for so long. Covering tactics, you'd think, after missing out on a medal, but reading between the lines he was torn between being chuffed to have been so close and annoyed to have let a medal slip away.
Percy and Simpson suffered a catalogue of bad-luck stories, including equipment damage and finished a disappointing sixth. Park admitted to some concerns and said he'd like to see his big-hitters getting back into the Olympic groove.
"I'd like to see them do more training in their Olympic-class boats but it doesn't concern me that they are doing an America's Cup or TP52 campaign. Having done their Olympic sailing for so many years now they would probably get bored if they were just going through the same routines.
"But, of course, it's not about winning here that matters, it's about winning in two years' time. So it's important they wanted to check in with the fleet and make a judgement on how much training they need to do in next two years."
But if Ainslie and Percy can afford a "sighter" at this stage in the cycle, sailors in some of the other classes are already battling hard just to make the team for 2012. The strength in depth in the 49ers, for example, will make securing that one spot in each class an Olympics in itself.
The 49er class is one of the most competitive in the Olympic fleet
Five British 49er crews finished in the top 10 at the World Championships in January, while three boats made the medal race in Weymouth.
Beijing duo Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes topped the Brit pack with a bronze, but nearest rivals Chris Draper and Peter Greenhalgh dropped to fifth after the final race. To add further spice, team-mates Dave Evans and Ed Powys won the medal race to finish sixth.
Morrison and Rhodes came up on the rails to steal the 49er berth for Beijing after winning the 2007 Olympic test event in China and the World Championships the same year. In doing so they overtook 2006 world champion Draper and then crew Simon Hiscocks, the Athens bronze medallists. Disillusioned, Draper quit Olympic sailing.
But Morrison and Rhodes endured a painful Games, finishing ninth as their team-mates plundered medals around them.
"You've got to work so hard to qualify you can end up with a situation where you're the best in the world with a year to go and then it's hard to keep yourself at that level for another year," Morrison said.
"Beijing gave us a massive knock and we've had to be thick-skinned about it, but it actually gave us the kick up the backside to say we need to be better. We got a long way on pure enjoyment and managed to keep a pretty young mental age for a long time. But perhaps the Olympics makes you grow up."
They've regrouped for this campaign, with the effervescent and ever-youthful Morrison, now 31, admitting he has had to become a bit more "robotic" and slightly less "freestyle".
"I've become the antithesis of the sailor I was when I was 22," said Morrison.
Draper, meanwhile, has rediscovered his passion after contemplating retraining as a chef and has come out firing with Greenhalgh. The pair won the European title in Poland in July, with Morrison and Rhodes third, and Draper admitted he was "gutted" to miss out in Weymouth.
But while a medal at the Sail for Gold Regatta is a good battle won for Morrison and Rhodes, both crews know the war (friendly, of course) is far from over. And that's without even thinking about catching the superior Australians.
It's not just about these two, either. The strength in the 49er class is such that John Pink and Rick Peacock, who came second in the 2009 worlds, missed out on a slot in the team hotel in Weymouth (reserved for the top two crews in each class) and had to kip in their campervan, eating fish and chips.
The selection "window" will open in September 2011 and could run right up until June 2012 if some classes are still too close to call. Results through 2011 will form the basis of the criteria, while the selectors could come back to this year and review performances in Weymouth. Certainly the official Olympic test event at the National Sailing Academy next June will be crucial.
"It's not about one race, it's about putting in consistent performances because ultimately we want to select proven winners," said Park.
Team GB have already set a goal of four medals, including one gold, from 2012, which seems conservative given they won six in Beijing and five in the two Games before that.
"It's a realistic target," insisted Park. "We've got to recognise that a lot of these other teams have had a really good look at what we're doing and managed to replicate lots of it and then add some bits of their own. Staying in front is always tough.
"By comparison to the last Olympic cycle, we're probably more competitive in more events and have a bigger depth of talent in each class."
Scott, and countryman Ed Wright who won the overall Finn World Cup this season, are shining examples of that, but you need the big guns to be firing too, and I suggested to Park that it's inconceivable that Ainslie won't be in the team for 2012.
"As we sit here now most people would expect him to be selected as one of our most decorated Olympians," he said. "But we've got a fleet of people chomping at his heels. They have huge youth and enthusiasm and are determined to prove they are the next Ben Ainslie. At some stage someone is going to beat him."
Scott did in Weymouth, and he insists he is not fazed by trying to end Ainslie's Olympic run.
"Ben is a fantastic champion and one of the best - if not the best - sailor in the world, and sailing against that is quite a big thing, so I've just tried to ignore it," he said. "There's a long road ahead and it will be difficult but I'm sure I can gain selection."
Looks like Ainslie will have to get back in his Finn and fight for his spot like everyone else.