GB sailors scrap for 2012 selection
The focus on London 2012 has just got sharper for some of Britain's Olympic sailing hopefuls. For others, the dream may be starting to blur.
The first major milestone on the road to 2012 has been reached, with the team named for the pre-Games test event in August.
Victory in the summer under Games conditions, and you would have to think the 2012 tracksuit is in the bag.
A podium place even, and you're still looking good. But trip up, and the sharks - in the shape of Olympic-hungry team-mates - will be circling.
For now, though, for those not selected, a place in a home Olympics must seem just that little bit further away.
"The Olympic test event is just one of the hurdles on the way to the Games," said British Olympic sailing manager Stephen Park.
"We haven't made any decisions as regards to selection and it is going to rumble on for some months yet.
"Those sailors who have missed out need to make sure they continue to train hard, to race hard and to deliver results at the Europeans in July and prepare well for the worlds in Perth in December."
Park and his management team have set a target of four medals, including at least one gold, from the 2012 London Olympics as they aim to continue Britain's place at the top of sailing's medal table in every Games since Sydney in 2000.
The forecast is based on their belief that they are likely to convert 50% of their realistic chances on any given day.
At the Sail for Gold regatta in Weymouth, British sailors delivered seven medals - two golds, three silver and two bronze - from six of the 10 Olympic classes (plus two from the three Paralympic disciplines).
That's compared to one gold, one silver and four bronzes in the same event last year.
Bear in mind, though, that at the Olympics there will only be one British boat on each start line, but in Beijing that yielded four golds, a silver and a bronze.
"We hope by the time we get to the Games we'll be medal-competitive in all 10 events," said Park.
Sail for Gold was used as the filter for the test event, and though Park insists it was not the sole criteria for selection, the top British boat in each class was chosen for the Olympic rehearsal.
Some selections were a foregone conclusion. Two-time Olympic champion Iain Percy and winning Beijing crew-mate Andrew Simpson are world champions and clearly Britain's number one Star crew despite only finishing fifth at Sail for Gold.
Nick Dempsey, the Athens bronze medallist who won in Weymouth, and Bryony Shaw, the Beijing bronze medallist, are the only two realistic windsurfing contenders.
Lucy Macgregor's match-racing crew, second to the Americans in Portland harbour, was another shoo-in.
Elsewhere, sailors were scrapping for their Olympic futures and a number of big-game performers stepped up.
There was much talk about three-time Olympic champion Ben Ainslie's place being under threat after his younger rivals Giles Scott and world champion Ed Wright flourished while the 33-year-old pursued his America's Cup dream after Beijing.
But Ainslie, who has put on 10 kilos since November to get back in shape for the Finn, demonstrated why he is Britain's most decorated Olympic sailor by delivering at the right time to reassure the selectors that he is still the king.
The two-time Finn gold medallist was pushed extremely hard by 23-year-old Scott but Ainslie bared his teeth in the final medal race in Weymouth and sailed his young rival to the back of the fleet to snuff out his chance.
Courteous and obliging on shore, Ainslie's will-to-win on the water is almost demonic. A shot at a fifth Olympic medal looks in the bag, barring any unforeseen circumstances.
"It's great to see Giles come and take on someone who is as successful as Ainslie but this is Ben's third World Cup win in a row and he's looking back at the top of his game," said Park.
Britain's embarrassment of riches in the Finn highlights the harsh reality of the Olympic rules.
Ainslie and Scott were "head and shoulders above the rest of the fleet" in Weymouth, according to Park, and Scott may well be the second best Finn sailor in the world.
But with only one boat per team allowed in each class, he will likely have to watch the Olympics from the sidelines.
Ben Ainslie wins gold in the Finn class in Weymouth on Saturday. Photo: PA
Goodison, though, faces a dilemma: bulk up to compete with Australia's world champion Tom Slingsby in strong winds, or continue as an all-rounder and hope August 2012's breezes are lighter than last week in Weymouth.
The high-performance 49er dinghy and the men's 470 have been the most fiercely contested of classes for the British over the past few years. Five GB 49er crews made the top 10 at the 2010 world championships and in another competitive season, five boats reached the final medal race in Weymouth.
Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes came out onto of the domestic dust-up, winning bronze to get the nod for August.
The pair were world champions in 2007 and won the pre-Olympic test event the same year to earn selection for the 2008 Games.
But they received a bloody nose in Beijing, placing only ninth, and have been plotting revenge ever since.
Third again in Sail for Gold last year and a victory in the last World Cup event in Holland, beating the red-hot Australian crew of Nathan Outteridge and Iain Jensen, will also have impressed the selectors.
In the men's 470 two-time Olympic silver medallist Nick Rogers, who retired in 2010, returned this season with new crew Chris Grube and finished top British boat - in fourth - in Weymouth.
The 33-year-old Rogers is outside the performance squad and therefore receives no funding and has had to scrimp together his own finances to compete this season.
The class was considered a shoot-out between Luke Patience/Stuart Bithell and Nic Asher/Elliott Willis, but Rogers' return with former development squad sailor Grube has upset the applecart.
"It was a difficult decision and one that is likely to rumble on in the selectors' minds for some time," admitted Park.
With the women's 470 of Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark also securing silver, Scotland's Park insists British sailing is in good shape going into the final phase of Olympic selection, but he admits the rest of the world is catching up fast.
"It is getting tougher and tougher every week to maintain our top spot but at the moment we are just maintaining our edge," he said.
"As we all know it doesn't matter if you win by an inch or a mile, a win is a win and we look forward to delivering four medals, maybe more, to add to the Team GB tally in 2012."
Dempsey has tasted success and failure at the Olympics and was "hurt" by the fourth place in Beijing.
Inspired by his wife, the now retired two-time gold medallist Sarah Ayton - who Dempsey describes as his own "in-house legend" - the 30-year-old is targeting his fourth Olympics.
But while his team-mates can take time out from their Olympic campaigns to re-energise and boost their earnings on the lucrative big-boat circuit, Dempsey is single-minded in pursuit of his "lifelong ambition".
"It's about Olympic gold," he said. "Always has been, always will be. I train hard, day-in, day-out. I spend a lot of time on the water and a lot of time on the bike.
"I can't have a couple of weeks off sailing big boats as you just lose fitness. It's all about performance and being the best I can be. That means being 100% committed to my Olympic programme, and really putting in everything I've got.
"I don't have time to go and do anything else. Anything that detracts from winning that gold medal is worthless. I keep focused and keep moving forward. That's why I am poor. Unlike them!"
Dempsey's attitude shows that the Olympic dream is still very real. And for the chosen few it has just moved a tiny bit closer to becoming reality.