Four-times Olympic Gold Yachtsman Ben Ainslie

British sailing’s strength is also British sailors’ downfall. It’s not enough to be second in the world and number two in your country these days. New rules allow only one boat from each nation in each sailing class.

I’m so thrilled for Ben Ainslie – he’s just won his fourth Olympic Gold sailing medal. Hats off to the gentleman assassin.

Fifteen years after bursting on to our sporting sightlines as a fresh-faced 19-year-old chasing a podium place in the Olympic Laser class, yachtsman Ben Ainslie is aiming for his fourth consecutive gold medal in his fifth games and a place among the world’s greatest-ever Olympians. Sandra Kessell caught up with him for Seafarer Magazine.

Yachtsman Ben Ainslie talks like a gentleman on a mission – he has fast, firm, decisive, soft-spoken replies for every question – until I ask him about qualifying for next year’s Olympics. It’s not that he stops in his verbal tracks, just his answers become very considered and measured.

Ben recently came second by a single point, after picking up penalties, to former training partner Giles Scott in the Olympic Classes Regatta in Miami. Giles is a man who acknowledges he has looked up to, and sailed in the wake of, Ben for a number of years. Ben, meanwhile, is very sporting in his praise for fellow British competitors, but there’s no hiding the quiet resolve in his voice when he’s talking about the crucial qualification regattas the squad will be competing in later this year.

Courteous and generous, Ben’s very far from being over-confident but he leaves you feeling you’ve just spoken to a highly-trained, extremely professional assassin – ruthless, clinical and effective with laser-beam sights. It’s these qualities he’s brought to bear while winning three successive Olympic golds as well as the silver medal he took in his first Olympics in Atlanta in 1996. With all that Olympic success heading his list of accolades, it’s often overlooked that he’s also a nine-times world champion and nine-times European champion.

British sailing’s strength is also British sailors’ downfall. It’s not enough to be second in the world and number two in your country these days. New rules allow only one boat from each nation in each sailing class. Ben and Giles will be up against Wales’s current World Champion Ed Wright as they vie to wear the red, white and blue lion of Team GB in the Olympic Finn class 2012. Which means some excellent sailors will have to watch from the marina at Weymouth and Portland, the venue for the Olympic 2012 sailing events.

“There are three or four in the UK who head the current world championship rankings – including Mark Andrews and Andrew Mills. It’s nice to see younger names coming through but it’s going to be very difficult to qualify and very tough on the guys who don’t qualify – any one of them could take a medal,” says Ben.

So we won’t be seeing three Britons filling the podium, as happened in February at the Miami Regatta, or three Union flags raised while the national anthem rings out over British waters. In the next few months heart-rending, life-changing decisions will have to be made and you don’t envy the selectors the task.

No longer the young whipper-snapper, Ben, at 34, is the old man of the Olympic sailing squad. He had been concentrating on America’s Cup sailing, but the withdrawal of his team, whilst a disappointment, has also meant Ben can switch his focus to individual matters. That means more time on the water, more time in the gym and surprisingly, much, much more to eat. Naturally lighter, he has had to put on 10 kilos to make the right weight for sailing in the Finn, but he’s been here before, and been successful in peaking at the right time in the right place, as his record shows.

Though sailing is highly skilful, and the equipment has to be world-class, physical fitness is a key factor in success and hard training part of the preparation, he emphasises. But with all that work in prospect you can’t help wondering if he still finds sailing fun, the way he did 15 years ago.

“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I love the sport, obviously, but I also love just being able to go out sailing with family and friends, going on sailing holidays and cruising boats,” he says. He also gets a thrill from sailing alone – something he’s been able to do since he was eight or nine, when he used to go out a little dinghy in Restronguet in Cornwall.

“It was a real ‘Swallows and Amazons’ experience. I loved being in control,” he says. And whilst he’s an advocate for safety he adds that it’s important for youngsters not to be too scared of doing exciting things.

“Back then, I wasn’t even wearing a life jacket. I had an old duffle coat and wellies on. There’s no way any parent these days would let you do that, but we are talking 25 years ago!” he says.

He’s credits his amateur sailor parents, Roddy and Susan, for imbuing him with his love of the sea and says he’s grateful for the huge amount of support they’ve given him in every way imaginable throughout his career. Roddy skippered at the first Whitbread Round the World Race in the Seventies.

Ben took his first Laser world championship title at the age of 16 and hasn’t looked back since. Though he says he’s lucky to have the backing of his sponsors, in the current financial climate he takes nothing for granted and names a hatful of them for good measure.

Other key players in his life have been his coach David Howlett as well as Jim Saltsonstall and John Derbyshire. He goes on to praise the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) and UK Sport for the way competitive sailing has been developed in Britain, showing he’s not only a man who commands respect, but who gives it too. His heroes include legendary Danish yachtsman Paul Elvstrøm, F1 racing driver Ayrton Senna and tennis player Pete Sampras and when the 2012 Olympics come around, he hopes he’ll be in a position to watch some of the athletics.

“I was lucky, in Atlanta, I was able to see some of the other sports. I think any Olympic sport at that level is worth watching,” he says, adding that the British cycling and swimming squads have excellent medal prospects.

“It’s really exciting. Every day you meet someone new talking about the games coming up next year. Training towards it as a potential competitor has obviously been very different this time around. It’s very different being able to race in your home waters but there’s the added pressure of hoping you’ll be there with your friends and family among the spectators. More than ever before it’s a challenge!”

There will be life after the Olympics and, he hopes, a future with a family of his own once he’s stopped living out of a suitcase, but till then his focus is the 2012 Olympics, his gold medal tally and the task of joining the legends of competitive sailing.

You can keep up-to-date with Ben Ainslie’s progress by visiting his website

Ben Ainslie – facts and stats:

Born: February 5, 1977.

Olympic successes:

1996 Atlanta, Silver (Laser class)

2000 Sydney, Gold (Finn Class)

2004 Athens, Gold (Finn Class)

2008 Beijing, Gold (Finn Class)

2012 London, Gold (Finn Class)

Other awards:

Commander of the Order of the British Empire (CBE)

Three-times ISAF World Sailor of the Year (1999, 2002 & 2008)

Five-times British Yachtsman of the Year (1999, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2008)

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Author: Sandra Kessell

Journalist, writer, editor.

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