The Awards are recognized as the highest honours a sailor can receive in recognition of his/her outstanding achievements during one year. The 2008 edition of the award ceremony took place last night, Tuesday 11 November, at the stunning La Quinta de Jarama in Madrid, Spain. The list of nominees was impressive, and the well-deserving winners of the 2008 ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year titles are Alessandra SENSINI (ITA) and Ben AINSLIE (GBR), two athletes who have excelled in the sport and have made history with their impressive achievements throughout their sailing careers.
View our photo gallery of the Awards night here.
Alessandra SENSINI is no stranger to success and she added her name to record books this year when she became the first woman to have ever won four Olympic medals in sailing. And at 38 years old, SENSINI's continuing achievement in the sport is all the more extraordinary. "To win the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award is an incredible feeling. I have done five Olympics and I have won four Olympic medals but I still feel great emotion to win a prize like this because it means you are inside the history of your sport and a part of world history - it's just incredible."
Born in Grosseto, Italy in 1970, SENSINI has had a very successful windsurfing career that began at the age of 13. By 1985 Sensini had already won her first major title as the Italian Junior Windsurfing Champion and she quickly moved to the top of her sport in Italy. Driven by her strong passion, SENSINI set her sights on the Olympic Games, first participating in 1992 in Barcelona, and winning her first bronze medal in 1996 in the Mistral class at the Olympic Games in Atlanta.
But one bronze was not enough and at the 2000 Games in Sydney SENSINI tasted gold, an achievement that saw her nominated for the first time for the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards. She was nominated a second time in 2002 after her consistency culminated in victory at the ISAF World Sailing Games in Marseille, France, where SENSINI won every one of the nine races in the series.
SENSINI remained on the Olympic circuit and at Athens in 2004 she continued her run on the podium, taking home another bronze in the process becoming a three-time Olympic medallist, an achievement never before realized by an Italian Olympic sailor. That same year SENSINI was appointed to the ISAF Windsurfing Committee and began commentating for Italian television on the America's Cup and other sailing events. SENSINI then made a third appearance at the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards when she hosted the ceremony in 2005 in Singapore.
SENSINI's 2008 season began with a gold medal at the 2008 RS:X World Championships in Auckland, New Zealand and a gold at the HRH Princess Sofia Trophy MAPFRE in Palma, Spain. At Qingdao, the sailing venue for the Beijing Olympic Games, SENSINI posted impressive results finishing every race within the top ten and ending the competition with the silver medal, making history for female sailors all over the world. "When I think that I have won four Olympic medals I start to count the years and I have to ask myself, 'how old are you?'," SENSINI laughed. "In China I was competing with girls that are 20 years old or even younger making it a really tough job. The Olympics do not get any easier the more you do and every year it is more difficult. But this, along with the all the changes in technology that have happened in the sport, have helped to keep me going in windsurfing as I like the challenge."
When asked if she was surprised to have won the 2008 Award, SENSINI put her hand to her heart and said, "I was surprised to win because I have already been nominated twice and I have always really wanted to win this prize but the competition with the other girls is always really hard because they are all really great and incredible at what they do. I think the voters have a very difficult job to decide the winner."
Although plans for the future are not fully decided, SENSINI is making the most of her down time in between Olympic campaigns to try some new things and to recover from an operation on her hand. "At the moment I'm using this time to sail keel boats, something I've wanted to do for a long time and as for the rest, we'll see in a year or so. I can't discount the 2012 Olympics because for the last two campaigns I've said, 'I'm going to stop, this is the last time' so I can never say never! As long as my body's in good shape and I feel like I can still grow, stay motivated inside and compete at a high level, I will keep going because I love the sport. It's a great opportunity I have in my life and it would be a shame to waste it."
Ben AINSLIE is also a familiar face here at the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards, having won the Award twice before in 1998 and in 2002. He is the only sailor to have won the Award three times. "The ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Award is a massive honour," AINSLIE said of his win. "For any sailor it's huge. It's a great list of nominees and for me to win it this year is fantastic and it's made my year absolutely - I'm just really, really happy." AINSLIE is Britain's most successful Olympic sailor with three gold medals and a silver, an impressive collection that has demanded years of passion and dedication.
Born in Macclesfield, Great Britain in 1977, AINSLIE has been sailing almost his entire life. He began sailing competitively by the age of nine and by the age of 16 he was already the Laser Radial World Champion. He competed in his first Olympic Games in 1996 at the age of 19, taking home the silver medal in the Laser class after narrowly losing to Robert SCHEIDT of Brazil in an epic battle that went to the last race. AINSLIE's success continued in the Laser with World Championship wins in both 1998 and 1999 and he went on in 2000 to win his first gold medal at the Sydney Olympic Games, where he reversed the result of four years previously by beating SCHEIDT.
AINSLIE then decided it was time for a new challenge and he switched to the Finn class in 2002. He wrapped up three consecutive World Championships before heading to Athens where once again he won gold. He has remained unbeaten in the Finn class ever since, winning the gold medal once again at the 2008 Beijing Games. In an interview with the BBC, IOC President Jacques ROGGE described AINSLIE's feat in winning a third sailing gold as the equal of Michael PHELPS [the swimmer] and Usain BOLT [the sprinter], "For me, his achievement is as valid as PHELPS or BOLT," said ROGGE. "The others can win two, three... all the way up to eight. What they do is fantastic, but what AINSLIE does is equally fantastic."
"China was a really, really tough Olympics," AINSLIE admitted, reflecting on what it was like to win his fourth Olympic medal. "The sailing conditions were the toughest we've ever seen and were really light. For all of us it was a great challenge and for me it was really a great relief to come away with the gold medal, which is what I had set my sights on."
Showing no signs of slowing, AINSLIE has the America's Cup and of course, the 2012 Games as his future targets. "The America's Cup is really the next biggest challenge for me and Team Origin. We've got a great sailing and design team in place and we're really looking forward to getting the Cup back on track, getting out on the water and getting racing. So that is my next challenge and after that, I think we are all looking forward to the 2012 Olympic Games in London as a once in a lifetime opportunity."
For anyone just starting out in sailing, AINSLIE offers these words of advice: "The big thing with sailing is that you have to enjoy it because it's a really complex sport and you need to always want to be learning, always want to improve and you need good people supporting you. So get out there and go for it - dreams can come true."
All nominees were able to attend last night's Award Ceremony at La Quinta de Jarama with the exception of Francis JOYON, who has just entered the record books again, this time conquering the Discovery Route from Cadiz to San Salvador. The result was kept secret from everyone until the announcement was made at 23:00 local time, adding to the sense of anticipation that built through the evening. Along with SENSINI and AINSLIE, the nominee list for the 2008 ISAF Rolex World sailor of the Year Awards brought together an incredible number of accomplishments in the sailing world. Over 500 guests packed the venue of last night's ceremony and were honoured to be in the company of so many talented sailors, including eight previous winners of this Award. The feeling was summed up in the opening remarks of HM King Constantine, ISAF President of Honour: "This is the one night of the year that we the world governing body of sailing and you our guests may marvel, celebrate and award those who are the heroes of our sport."
The list of nominees for the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year award also included:
Sarah AYTON, Sarah WEBB & Pippa WILSON (GBR)
Claire LEROY (FRA)
Elise RECHICHI & Tessa PARKINSON (AUS)
Anna TUNNICLIFFE (USA)
Tom ASHLEY (NZL)
Francis JOYON (FRA)
Vincenzo ONORATO (ITA)
Ian WILLIAMS (GBR)
Find out more about the Awards, the 2008 nominees, past winners and more at the ISAF Rolex World Sailor of the Year Awards microsite - www.sailing.org/worldsailor.