Double Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie talks to Robert Deaves about his preparation for the Olympic Games, the competition he is faced with and his thoughts on the future.
Without doubt Ben AINSLIE
(GBR) is one of the biggest names in sailing at the moment, and certainly the biggest name in Qingdao. The Olympic Sailing Competition in China marks his fourth appearance at the Olympic Games, after winning silver in the Laser in Savannah in 1996, gold in the Laser in Sydney in 2000 and gold in the Finn in Athens in 2004.
He has become an icon for a generation of young sailors, a great ambassador for the sport and arguably the most successful Finn sailor of all time, having won five World Championships, four European Championships and the gold medal four years ago. Even though he spent two years effectively out of the class after winning his fourth consecutive world championship in 2005, he remains unbeaten in the Finn since winning gold in Athens in 2004.
But what's makes him so good? What has he got that the others haven't? What makes the difference? Typically modest off the water, he said, "I guess I'm fortunate in that I have now been racing boats for 20 years, pretty much continually, yet I am still really motivated to train hard, learn and improve. I feel that I still have a long way to go and I'm still very passionate about winning."
And winning is something he seems to take in his stride, getting back up to speed again in the Finn pretty quickly after the two years off. "I found it relatively easy to get back into the boat. The biggest issue is the sailing fitness, which took a couple of months to regain."
However his success also brings with it the expectation of further success. "It's difficult when people just expect you to win and probably secretly hope that you lose for a change. Pressure is something you just have to deal with and it doesn't get any easier, but it is also part of the thrill of competing at the highest level."
At important regattas such as the Olympic Games? "I generally feel pretty relaxed although I do have some nerves and am obviously pretty excited about getting on with the racing after so much preparation. Sometimes that is hard though as there is always a lot of hype surrounding the Olympics. I try to minimise the number of distractions and just focus on the racing."
What keeps him focused and inspired to keep going at this level for so long?
"I take each year and set goals which I want to achieve. I'm fortunate that I do a lot of other sailing, which keeps me fresh and increases my understanding of the sport. As well as training out of Lymington, UK with the rest of the British Finn squad earlier this year, I have also competed in the Round The Island Race in the UK with Alex THOMSON on his open 60 Hugo Boss as well as representing Team Origin at the Swedish Cup Match Race. But as far as the Olympics is concerned, it's not very hard to get motivated about that."
For all sailors here their preparations have been timed to peak at the right time. The tricky sailing conditions in Qingdao have meant that many sailors have been trying new and radical things to get an edge over the competition. For Ben though, it has as usual just come down to hard work.
"My preparation for China has been based around some specific equipment development, working on sails and hulls, along with sailing at a more natural body weight for this season. It was important for me to sail at the same weight all season; making a big dip for the Games is dangerous for a number of reasons."
As far as gear is concerned, "We have looked into a Wilke boat, a new Devoti, Cuban sail cloth and have worked really hard on two new sail designs with Juan GUARAY from Argentina. I can't say yet which we will end up using. However, a lot of effort has gone into equipment testing so I have a lot of confidence in the kit that I will use."
Time on the water in Qingdao has also been a vital part of the process. "I sailed with the rest of the British squad for the last week of May and first two weeks of June and then we have been in China now since the 12th July. Since then, the conditions have actually been very good. We only missed one day due to a lack of wind. That said, the weed has been a slight issue but I hope it will have been fully cleared by the time we start racing. The local fishermen are certainly trying their hardest."
"It's been great to have the whole squad to train with. It means we can do our own training and set our own schedule. Other sailors have joined in, which has been fine, but we very much wanted to control the training to avoid all the wasted time that normally occurs when you have a random group trying to train together. All the boys did a great job and pushed me hard. Ed WRIGHT was a great help in what must have been a difficult situation."
WRIGHT lost the British Finn trials to AINSLIE earlier this year.
"When training in Qingdao you just spend as much time on the water as possible as the waters are so unique in terms of wave state and tidal influences. Whilst we are expecting lighter winds it is still important to focus on being able to sail in a breeze. I think we might see a few surprises with the weather during the Olympics."
While many sailors have been reducing weight ready for the Games, AINSLIE has a more conservative attitude. He added, "The wind can still blow in China."
AINSLIE also acknowledges the support team behind him. "Skandia Team GBR is a very professional team and the RYA certainly does a lot of work behind the scenes to help the sailors with their campaigns. I also rely very heavily on my personal sponsors JPMorgan Assett Management, BT, Henri Lloyd, Corum and Volvo. I'm also very fortunate to have a great coach in Jez FANSTONE and to be able to call on David HOWLETT for technical support."
"The RYA has been collecting a lot of weather data in China over a number of years. Most teams have a large amount of data, the key is what you do with that data. For any sailor the most crucial decision is what the wind will do in the first five minutes of the race."
Clearly for all sailors here the Olympics is the pinnacle of achievement. "The Olympics is a chance for sailing to represent itself on a global scale and to win a gold medal gives you an immense feeling of achievement."
However, it is not going to be easy for Ben to win his fourth medal. Despite his outstanding and unequalled success in the class over the past six years, there are many other excellent sailors competing in Qingdao, all equally determined to win, and the conditions have proved more difficult to master than at many other venues.
"Jonas [Jonas HOEGH-CHRISTENSEN (DEN)] is a very good sailor and is fast in all conditions. Emilios [Emilios PAPATHANASIOU (GRE)] can be very fast in the light but has had a tough year so far. Ivan [Ivan KLJAKOVIC GASPIC (CRO)] is very good all round and is very consistent. Rafa [Rafa TRUJILLO (ESP)] is also very consistent and normally saves his best for the big occasion. Dan [Dan SLATER (NZL)] proved that he can be very dangerous at the Worlds and is very experienced. Pieter-Jan [Pieter-Jan POSTMA (NED)] is very fast and is also a bit of a maverick. Gasper [Gasper VINCEC (SLO)] has been improving all season and can sail very well at times. I'm sure there are guys I have missed there but you can see that it is a very open class with plenty of depth."
He also added, "The regatta centre here is far and away the best I have ever seen for an Olympic Regatta. The scale of the place is astounding and there are plenty of volunteers around to make sure everyone is happy."
And what's coming up after the Olympic Games?
"I am heavily involved with Team Origin and after the Games we will probably get more involved with the Match Racing Tour. I am sailing with Neville Crichton on Alfa Romeo for the Maxi Worlds and there are a number of projects in the pipeline. It's good to have a plan post Games otherwise it's easy to kind of get stuck in limbo once it is all over. Also, I really want to compete on my home waters in 2012."
AINSLIE also has strong feelings about the much-debated format for the Olympics. "I don't think people are actually looking at the requirements of the sailors. You need a boat for people over 90kg to sail. Yes, you have the Star but to sail that you have to be either personally wealthy or very good at finding sponsorship. There are a number of classes for sailors between 60-80 kg. I don't see the reason for having two men's double-handed boats and I think the 470 women should be replaced by the 29er. High performance boats like the Moth and Tornado are fantastic to watch go in a straight line but they do not offer the same physical or tactical challenges of other boats. I guess it depends if we are chasing classes which look good or which offer the sailors a better challenge. For me, the Finn is a great boat. It is a real mix of physical, tactical and technical challenges."
"I think sailing in the Olympics needs to focus on excellence. I'd like to see shorter races with fewer boats in heats. That way the courses can be closer to shore and people can focus more on the individual teams."
However, in Qingdao the 26 sailors have 11 races ahead of them to decide the three medallists who will stand on the podium next Saturday - three more names which will go down in history. Ben himself is increasingly being compared with the greatest Olympic sailor of them all, Paul ELVSTRÖM
(DEN). How does he react to that? "It's very flattering but I can't afford to think about that. We all hope to be like Paul ELVSTRÖM but four gold medals is a long way away."
By next Saturday it could be one step closer.