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Ainslie and Ayton live up to hype

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Rob Hodgetts | 18:19 UK time, Sunday, 17 August 2008

Ben Ainslie and the Yngling team of Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson defied the weight of expectation to deliver gold medals in emphatic fashion in Qingdao.

The British sailors were hot favourites going into the Olympic regatta and as true champions they excelled under the pressure and completed clinical victories.

For Finn star Ainslie, it was a third gold medal at successive Games to add to the silver he won as a 19-year-old in the Laser class in Atlanta in 1996, making him Britain's most successful Olympic sailor ever.

He surpassed Rodney Pattison's two golds and one silver in the 1960s and 1970s.

Ainslie, 31, who also won in the Laser in 2000 and Finn in 2004, has matched German Jochen Schumann's three golds and one silver, leaving only Dane Paul Elvstrom, winner of four consecutive titles between 1948 and 1960, with more Olympic sailing golds.

Brazilian sailor Torben Grael has won five Olympic sailing medals - two gold, one silver and two bronze.

"When I was a kid, all of my generation looked up to Rodney Pattison and all that he achieved," said Ainslie.

"It seems a little surreal to be in the position that I'm in now but it's been a long road and I've really enjoyed all of my Olympic sailing career, whether it was the Games or the experience along the way."

Ben Ainslie dominated the Finn regatta in Qingdao

Three Olympic titles may not be the gold rush of a Michael Phelps, or even a multi-medallist at the same Games, such as Chris Hoy, but as a sailor Ainslie can only compete in one discipline. And he has also had to qualify as Britain's sole representative in his class for four straight Games.

"Everyone in sailing knows he's a legend," said Shirley Robertson, a two-time Olympic gold medallist and the BBC's sailing correspondent in Qingdao.

"He's so young still and he has yet to do more. I wouldn't be surprised if he surpassed Steve Redgrave.

"In my lifetime he is the most special sailor we've seen. He could certainly go on to beat Paul Elvstrom's record."

Off the water, Ainslie is slightly shy but on the race course he is a different animal.

"It's more than just being in a class on his own - he's on his own planet," said Robertson. "He just has no weaknesses and his skills are just way in excess of any of the opposition. He just makes it look so easy.

"He has a special talent. He can see the wind better than most, he feels the boat better than most and is especially fast downwind. But he's also a very aggressive sailor, and he takes no prisoners."

Ainslie led the fleet going into the medal race and just needed to stay within six places of closest rival Zach Railey, or prevent the American finishing fifth or better.

In scenes reminiscent of his infamous personal duel with Brazilian Robert Scheidt to win gold in Sydney, Ainslie hunted down the American from the gun in Saturday's aborted medal race.

Railey pleaded with Ainslie halfway round to let him preserve his own medal chance and was reprieved when the race was called off because of a lack of breeze.

But Ainslie licked his lips at the blustery winds on Sunday and instead of playing a cat-and-mouse game with Railey, he cruised to a sublime victory.

"We got a glimpse of just how cut-throat he is - with one move on the start line he completely took out any danger from Railey," said Robertson.

"He didn't have to win the race - all he had to do was to stay with Zac - but he wanted to. He enjoyed the wind and just wanted to stretch his legs.

"Speaking to the other Finn competitors before the Games, they weren't even discussing the possibility of winning gold. It was very much who was going to win silver and bronze.

"Even the Danish guy ranked number one said it would be a catastrophe if Ben didn't win it. Zach got into a good position but I think in his heart of hearts he was waiting for the big man to come."

Ainslie will be 35 when Weymouth hosts the next Olympic sailing regatta in 2012. If he's still motivated and if he qualifies, age will be no barrier to adding another medal to his collection.

The America's Cup could provide an obstacle - Ainslie will be helmsman for Britain's Team Origin whenever the next Cup is held (recent legal wranglings mean there is no decision as yet).

But given how he only returned last summer from America's Cup duty with Team New Zealand, before clinching the British Finn spot for Beijing and then winning a fifth Finn world title and fourth European crown, it's probably not that much of a hurdle at all.

"We saw how effortlessly he did this campaign," said Robertson. "He was so much better than the rest that it's hard to see how they're going to catch up. He can do a short-term campaign and still be so dominant, so I think we will see him come back time and time again.

"If he went to a new class like the Star he would have to put a bit more time in - technically, there's a lot more to learn.

"But if he was involved in the America's Cup, I can see him staying in the Finn because he knows he can come back in Weymouth and win again."

Pippa Wilson (left), Sarah Webb (centre) and Sarah Ayton (right) won Yngling gold in Qingdao

As for the Yngling girls, Ayton, 28, and Webb, 31, have equalled Robertson's tally of two gold medals after they won the title with the Scot in 2004.

Since Athens, they went their separate ways - Robertson to start a family and Ayton to launch a new Olympic campaign, moving from bow to helm.

With Webb, new crew Wilson, now 22, and coach Paul Brotherton, Ayton formed a tightknit, formidable team.

They beat off Robertson's belated challenge for an Olympic spot and went to Qingdao as double world champions and, if not quite with the same aura as Ainslie, certainly as the dominant force in the class.

Going into the medal race they were a single point ahead of the Dutch but like Ainslie they won the final showdown.

"They did so well. They're a very polished team and don't have any weaknesses," said Robertson.

"They were a class above everybody else and we saw time and time again that even though they didn't necessarily make the best start, they had it in the tool box to do what they needed to do."

Robertson admitted she was "jumping up and down" in the commentary box as they crossed the line.

"I've known Sarah Ayton for a long time. She came out to Sydney with me to help in my campaign and there's a great sense of pride to see her doing it for herself."

Four years is a long time in sport and life, but Ainslie, Ayton et al could be delivering again in 2012.


  • Comment number 1.

    I think Shirley's comments just underline how good Ben is. Unlike many Olympic athletes he doesn't sail the Star full time. He's probably spent more time sailing keelboats than dinghies over the last 4 years but he has the ability to put together a short campaign and still be head and shoulders above the rest.

    We've never seen anything like this before. Watch out Steve Redgrave!

  • Comment number 2.

    Any comments that compare these guys to Redgrave et. al. are farcical, look at the rowers as they cross the line, there is nothing left in them, they are totally shot. Then compare that to Ainslie crossing the line. There are some things that get better with age, knowledge and experience and even skills, and in a sport such as sailing they will cancel out a loss of strength and endurance, which is exactly what you need in rowing and Redgrave fought against that, not just age, but diabeties and colitus too. To be the best in your sport is great, to maintain it is great, but Redgrave was superhuman and Pincent wasn't far back.

  • Comment number 3.

    It is always difficult to compare sporting achieving in very different sports. The physical effort required to sail a high perfomance dinghy in a championship race in Windy conditions, such as the medal race in the Finn yesterday, should not be underestimated. Ainslie is a superb athlete and was clearly untouchable by the rest of the Finn class as the conditions got more demanding. Its probably true that its easier to sustain a dinghy racing career over 20 years than a rowing career, but if Ainslie can win in Weymouth it will still be a huge achievement and no mistake.

  • Comment number 4.

    Great to see a local Bloke doing England proud! infact there's a couple of locals doing England proud.

    Lymington boys keep up the amazing work!

  • Comment number 5.

    Well Said Calidor.
    I had the privilege of sailing with Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy and his equally brilliant sister during the nineties at club level and the gruelling “circuit” during weekends. There was not one man at any level of fitness, age, knowledge or experience that could take away the pure brilliance of these two men. They can be directly linked to a rower in my opinion or indeed a sprinter. Both of these aforementioned disciplines require enormous bursts of energy over a relatively short period of time. A sailor must endure over an hour a sheer stamina and brut force in any of the heavier wind conditions whilst also maintaining a strong mind. Don’t forget that part of the training for these sailing athletes is rowing, running and weight lifting!
    Well done to all our athletes, but a huge congratulations to our sailors who have once again proved our dominance in a very demanding and difficult event. Sailing should be firmly placed on the Map for good media coverage in the future and as much as possible over the next 4 years to promote new youngsters to a sport we excel in.


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