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Ben Ainslie: The Olympics' most successful sailor on tactics, flying and his split personality


Calling sailing elitist is a misconception Of course all sports at the highest level are expensive to compete; it costs a fortune to win the Tour de France. But in terms of grass-roots level, it's relatively inexpensive; you don't need your own dinghy, and at my local club in Lymington, local school pupils can sail for a fiver – that's comparable to any other sport.

I feel uncomfortable taking credit for winning this year's America's Cup The media like to pin it on one person, but it was the whole team. You couldn't have written a script like it, though [in what has been described as the greatest comeback in sailing history, as the boat's tactician, Ainslie masterminded Team USA's 9-8 win over Team New Zealand]. It had intrigue [the team's previous tactician was sacked mid-race], rule issues, and boats flying around Golden Gate Bridge. So what did I do? Some individuals hadn't been offering as much as they could have been; I helped draw that out.

Being a boat tactician is like bench-pressing in a gym while someone throws buckets of water at you and you're trying to play chess But ultimately it's about being able to encourage and communicate to everyone else what you're thinking and what the next move is.

We should give youngsters more responsibility I was eight when I sailed my first boat. We lived in Cornwall by the sea and on Christmas morning my parents gave me an old dinghy which we took down to the beach. My dad told me how it worked and he pushed me off the beach, with just my Wellington boots and a duffel coat on, and said, "We're walking up to pub for lunch, half a mile up the creek. We'll see you there." He had such tremendous faith in me.

Andrew Simpson's death changed my perspective on life [The Olympic sailor died training for the America's Cup in May] It made me think about the things in life that are important; family, my friends – and despite the terrible tragedy, I found the opportunity to rethink all those priorities uplifting. With hindsight, the accident was inevitable. We saw our own [America's Cup] boat capsize in October last year during trials and maybe it was inevitable that it would happen again [on another boat]. But at the time, when we were all developing a new class of boat, it was hard to predict how it would react to certain conditions.

The best life lesson my dad taught me: never give up When I was learning to race and things often weren't going well, I saw that we'd lose a couple more places simply because those around me had stopped trying. I remember being amazed at the difference that makes to the overall scoreboard at the end.

Flying is a great way to clear the mind I've been learning to fly for the past few years as it gives me a tremendous escape. Being up in the air, I get this intense feeling of freedom; because piloting requires such concentration, I don't have time to dwell on other things

I have a bit of a split personality I'm better than I used to be. When I was on water, I would be focused and seriously aggressive and often get quite upset. But while on land I was always the opposite; shy and embarrassed when introduced to groups of people. As I've got older, those two characters have merged somewhat.

Sir Ben Ainslie, 36, is the most successful sailor in Olympic history, having won medals at the past five consecutive Olympics, including gold at the last four. He is a founder member of sailing charity the Andrew Simpson Sailing Foundation, which aims to promote the sport to disadvantaged youths through sailing academies (andrewsimpsonsailing.org)