Ben Ainslie (GBR) and Lijia Xu (CHN) were named the male and female winners of the 2012 ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards at a ceremony held at the Mansion House, Dublin, Ireland on Tuesday 6 November.
The ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards takes place during the International Sailing Federation's (ISAF) Annual Conference, which this year is being held in Dun Laoghaire. The award ceremony welcomes the pinnacle of the sailing world including sailors, officials and conference delegates.
The annual Awards, sponsored by Rolex since 2001, are the highest honour a sailor can receive and is recognition of achievement in a twelve-month period, in this case from 1 September 2011 to 31 August 2012.
Competition for the 2012 Awards was formidable, with four outstanding female and five equally exceptional male candidates short-listed from a list of nominations made by the public at large. The winners were decided by the votes of the over 130 Member National Authorities of ISAF. Suspense was maintained until the very last minute, with the nominees and guests unaware who had won until the official announcement itself.
Ben Ainslie (GBR) - History Boy
The greatest of his generation. Four Olympic gold medals and now as many ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards. Ben Ainslie is the most successful Olympic sailor of all time. The 35-year old's achievement at London 2012 elevated him to five Olympic medals (four gold, one silver), surpassing Rolex Testimonee Paul Elvstrøm (DEN), winner of four gold medals between 1948 and 1960. On receiving the award, Ainslie paid tribute to the team that has supported him, "Winning the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year award is a huge honour, especially for everyone who has helped me. There is a huge team in the background from family, friends, coaches and sponsors who helped make it happen. It is an honour to be part of such a group of exceptional sailors who were put forward for this award."
Ainslie headed into his home Olympics under a colossal weight of expectation. He was given the honour of welcoming the Olympic torch on its arrival in the United Kingdom, and was chosen as the first of 8,000 torchbearers. Fittingly, after making history on the waters off Weymouth, Ainslie was selected as Team GB's flag bearer at the Closing Ceremony. "To take part in a home Olympics was a completely unique experience,"
reflected Ainslie. "I have never felt quite the same level of expectation but also level of support."
Once competition started, it was another Dane - Jonas Høgh-Christensen - who contrived to stand between Ainslie and his fourth Olympic Gold. Ainslie began the 2012 competition better than any previous Games, but not as well as Christensen. Ainslie needed to react and he used a racecourse incident during the second half of the week to channel his competitive energy. The reigning Olympic champion found a new level, won two of the last four races and went into the decisive medal race needing to beat the relentless Dane but avoid conceding too many points to his other closest rivals. In front of a partisan crowd and following a nail-biting encounter, Ainslie emerged victorious. He cut an exhausted and emotional figure on the finish line. "These Olympics were not that easy for me, sometimes it flows, sometimes you have to fight for it,"
he admitted. "It was tough fight all the way to the finish. Taking the gold medal in front of a home crowd - I don't think I will ever experience an emotion quite like that again."
Ainslie has been at the top for 20 years, enduring enormous self-sacrifice in his quest for perfection. A pursuit that involves never giving an inch in training sessions and a relentless competition schedule. His remarkable career has seen him claim nine European titles and ten world championships - the first back in 1993. Few sportsmen, in any discipline, have been at the forefront of their profession for such a sustained period.
He has given the sport some of its finest moments including two epic battles with Rolex Testimonee Robert Scheidt (BRA) at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games - duels that drew a wider public to sailing.
Driven and passionate, Ainslie is a compelling character whose future in the sport is expected to concentrate on his desire to launch a British America's Cup challenge. As part of his 'apprenticeship' Ainslie is part of Team Oracle under the stewardship of two-time ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Russell Coutts, and alongside the 2010 ISAF Rolex World Sailor, Tom Slingsby.
Ainslie's excellence in the sport has been recognised with this record fourth ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award following titles gained in 1998, 2002 and 2008. However, Ainslie remains modest about his momentous achievements, "There are a lot of fantastic sailors out there and when you look at someone like Paul Elvstrøm, he revolutionised the sport of sailing in his day and I certainly don't think I can claim to have done that. I am very fortunate to have had the support to do what I have."
Lijia Xu (CHN) - Immense Competitor
The inspirational Lijia Xu etched her name in the history books in August 2012 becoming the first Chinese, and indeed Asian, sailor to win an Olympic Gold medal in a dinghy sailing boat. "I didn't expect to be the winner,"
admitted Xu. "It is an honour to be named ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year and become the first sailor from China to receive this award. I hope this award can inspire more children in China to take up the sport."
Xu triumphed in the Laser Radial, one of the tightest and most dramatic competitions at London 2012. This after the Shanghai-born sailor hardly made an auspicious start to competition, finishing in the top three positions in only one of the first six races. During the second half of the week, Xu's class came to the fore. In a manner reminiscent of her fellow 2012 ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year, she showed grit and determination to put herself in pole position for the deciding medal race.
Going into that final race, Xu could not afford to slip up with three rivals all in strong contention. In a winner takes all finalé, the 25-year old Chinese sailor sailed best, winning the race and adding Olympic Gold to the Bronze she claimed in Beijing. Her victory lap following the dramatic medal race was one of the sailing competition's iconic moments. "It was a fantastic medal race that will be remembered forever,"
said Xu. "On crossing the finishing line I realized not only my own dream but also the whole nation's dream. Many people strived for this gold for so many years and despite all the difficulties and setbacks we conquered it."
Victory in London proved the crowning achievement following an impressive year, where she won three ISAF Sailing World Cup regattas and peaked at the right time after claiming an impressive silver medal during a highly competitive Laser Radial World Championship in May.
A keen swimmer in her youth, Xu's passion for sailing began from the age of 10 when she started Optimist sailing in Shanghai. She took to the sport immediately. By 2001, at the age of 14, she was Girls' Optimist World Champion, a title she reclaimed in 2002. Her story is one of resilience. Xu has battled significant hearing and sight problems and missed out on a place at the Athens Olympics in 2004, when a routine medical examination revealed a tumour in her leg that subsequently required major surgery.
Xu resiliently bounced back and in 2006 won the Laser Radial Women's World Championship. That success, together with the Bronze medal gained at Beijing, on the back of a serious hand injury, propelled Xu onto the international stage. "The most challenging part of my career has been facing injuries. It is important to never give in, never yield,"
Xu, who was also her nation's flag bearer at the Closing Ceremony of London 2012 is assessing whether to mount a campaign for the 2016 Games in Rio. In the meantime, she is taking time to complete her studies and reflect on the love she has for her sport, "Sailing has given me the chance to chase my dreams and the stage to show my potential. It has provided me with the opportunity to see, feel and explore the world. Sailing leads me to a path of a better life, a life full of vitality, excitement and joyful experiences."
Xu is only the second Asian sailor to be named ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year following in the footsteps of female windsurfer Lee Lai Shan (HKG) who won in 1996.
Double Olympic gold medallist and World Sailor of the Year in 2000, Shirley Robertson, hosted the ceremony. The Awards were presented by ISAF President of Honour HM King Constantine and Joël Aeschlimann of Rolex SA. Both winners were presented with a Rolex timepiece and an ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year trophy.
A Stellar Supporting Class
In addition to the two winners, the list of nominees for the 2012 ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award included:
Mathew Belcher & Malcolm Page (AUS)
- Men's 470 - London 2012 Olympic Gold Medallists, 2011 and 2012 World Champions & 2011-12 ISAF Sailing World Cup Champions
Nathan Outteridge & Iain Jensen (AUS)
- 49er - London 2012 Olympic Gold Medallists & 2011 and 2012 World Champions
Loïck Peyron (FRA)
- Outright Around the World Record
Tom Slingsby (AUS)
- Laser - London 2012 Olympic Gold Medallist & 2011 and 2012 World Champion
Tamara Echegoyen, Angela Pumariega and Sofía Toro (ESP)
- Women's Match Racing - London 2012 Olympic Gold Medallists
Helena Lucas (GBR)
- 2.4mR - London 2012 Paralympic Gold Medallist and 2011-12 ISAF Sailing World Cup Champion
Saskia Sills (GBR)
- RS:X - ISAF Youth Sailing World Champion & European Youth Champion
With the exception of Loïck Peyron all of the nominees attended the Awards Ceremony, celebrating a year of outstanding achievement.
ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards
The winners of the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards are decided by vote by the over 130 Member National Authorities of ISAF following a worldwide selection process that begins with an open invitation for nominations. Two awards, one for a female sailor/crew and one for a male sailor/crew, are presented to the individuals who are deemed to have most distinguished themselves during the qualifying period from 1 September 2011 to 31 August 2012.
Past recipients of the Awards - which were launched in 1994 - have been drawn from the diverse disciplines of the sport: Olympic dinghy and keelboats, single-handed ocean racing, transatlantic record breaking, match-racing, America's Cup and windsurfing are all represented. In addition to the magnificent ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Trophy, each winner is presented with a Rolex timepiece.
For Further Information
Please visit the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards microsite at: www.sailing.org/worldsailor