22 August 2004
Out of the water he was just a nice young man with eight days of beard and a big smile beneath. But the wet-suited walk had hint enough of the heavy, padding beast that he is on the water. Ben Ainslie had closed out his second gold. The legend grows that at 27 he could be the greatest sailor in our history.
The day that really mattered was not yesterday but Sunday. With 14 places in hand of Spain’s Rafael Trujillo he only had to sail round circumspectly to avoid catastrophe. It was a scorching afternoon, a heat haze over Athens, irritatingly light winds on the green blue sea, an ugly crowded jostle at the end of first downward leg, but otherwise a copybook stalking of Trujillo floating in a place behind the Spaniard, 14th of the 25 man fleet. Sunday had been different.
Then the `Meltemi’ wind was freshening from the shore; 14 knots in the first race, 25 in the second. But Ainslie was blowing up a storm, physically seething from his perceived injustice at Frenchman Guillaume Florent’s dubiously delayed protest that had seen Ainslie disqualified and drop to 19th place overall. What happened out on the Saronic Gulf that Sunday had seasoned salts holding their head in awe.
At 4.5 metres length and 140 kg weight, the Finn is the biggest, heaviest and most demanding of the single-handed boats, which is why Ainslie has put on 20 kg of muscle since leaving his gold medal-winning Laser after Sydney. To sail it in strong winds is accepted as the greatest challenge of its type. It is what Ainslie’s New Zealand idol Russell Coutts sailed to win Gold at Los Angeles in 1984. This week Coutts said that Ainslie was his peer.
In the second race on Sunday the winds were so strong that eight of the boats capsized but Ainslie never backed off as he duelled with the Belgian Sebastian Godefroid who had been second in the opener. Ainslie led at the third and fifth of the five turning markers, Godefroid at the fourth and again at the sixth with just one leg to the finish. But he was under pressure, Ainslie pressure and 100 metres from the line he capsized. The beast had bit.
From then on, there was an inevitability about the contest, however tough and talented the opposition. By the end of Monday Ainslie was back in the lead. The Finn class has 11 races over five days in many conditions. But ask around. There is nothing like Ainslie. “I have watched him so many times on the water and he never ceases to surprise me,” says Ian Walker, a silver medallist at both Atlanta and Sydney and this week triumphant as coach of Gold Medal trio Shirley Robertson, Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton. “You just wonder how the hell he does it.”
To sail the Finn demands massive body strength, great tactical ability and above all an understanding of the mysteries of where wind is and how your boat will answer to it. What Ainslie can do as he drives through the waves in extremis is beginning to have something of Lance Armstrong on a climb. Which makes it all the more delightful to discover the ordinary pleased-to-meet-you young man on the shore.
He paid tribute to his training partners, to the support staff of this best organised and most successful of all our Olympic teams. He talked of his parents, Roddy and Sue, who had hidden that first £100 Optimist Dinghy on Christmas Eve back in Cornwall 17 years ago. He spoke of his hopes of sailing in the Bejing Olympics in 2008 after his America’s Cup session with Team New Zealand. He repeated his dream of being part of a future British America’s Cup challenge. And he did not hide his pride. “I was absolutely devastated after the first day,” he said, “and I am really proud to have turned it around. I remember being really wound up on the Sunday, going out for the first race, getting a “bullet” and coming in and saying to the other sailors “take that”.
Across the key from him was the tousled, charismatic figure of the Pole Mateus Kusznierewicz, the Gold Medallist in Atlanta who had ensured bronze yesterday by winning and promptly jumping into the Aegean with a delighted yelp. “Ben is the best sailor I have ever sailed against,” he said, “he is very determined and focused but above all he looks as if he was born in a boat. He can do things none of us can.”
The medal ceremony, looking out through an arch to the moonlit ocean, saw gold medals for Ainslie, for Robertson’s magnificent crew and a silver for the 470 pair Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield after they were disappointingly trapped and sailed down the fleet by the super-skilful Americans, Paul Foerster and Kevin Burnham. It had been the greatest-ever day for British competitive sailing with Ian Percy and Steve Mitchell ranked third in the Stars after their first two races.
After a stuttering start Britain’s overall Olympic experience has become a happy one. Victory smiles and tears come in many forms but for this observer one seaborne one will last forever. When Ainslie had crossed the line and come across to check with coach Dave Howlett that there were no doubts or protests lingering, he took his white cap off and submitted to the TV and photo waving routine. Then, finally, he swung the tiller round and set off for harbour. A young man with a Union Jack on his sail and the haze of Athens behind him. The sun lit him with its own golden sheen. We were watching nothing less than a genius on the water.