A backwater world of his own: Interview; BEN AINSLIE

A quiet, unassuming Briton has achieved the highest accolade of the high seas.
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The Independent Online
It is a reflection of the blinkered way we view the sporting world that a champion, as English as tea and toast, can walk away with the most prestigious award in his sport and no one is any the wiser. Last week, Ben Ainslie was voted World Sailor of the Year by the International Sailing Federation. His prize was a silver plate etched with some exclusive names: Pete Goss, Robin Knox-Johnston, Russell Coutts have all been past winners. That Ainslie is just 21 years old and beat Paul Cay-ard, the winning skipper in the Whitbread Round the World Race, merely heightened the sense of achievement. Had this been France or Italy, other maritime nations, Ainslie would already be a celebrity. An appearance on a Question of Sport is about the nearest this remarkable young man has come to attracting a wider audience for his talent here.

In the most competitive of the Olympic sailing categories, Ainslie has shown a near unprecedented domination. He is European and world champion and undisputed world No 1. Had he not been the subject of a controversial disqualification at the start of the final race in the Atlanta Olympics, he would have added gold to the list. Four points behind the Brazilian Robert Scheidt on that decisive morning, Ainslie harried Scheidt into a blatant false start only to be penalised himself for a similar offence on far less clear-cut evidence. Ainslie had led for all but the last few days; Scheidt took the gold, Ainslie silver in a summer which by rights should have been given over to his A-levels.

"It used to drive me mad thinking about what might have happened, but in some ways it's worked out for the best," he says. "If I'd have won gold so young, it might have been hard to motivate myself what to do next. Now, there is no question. I want to put it right at the next Olympics." Barring an alarming and unlikely dip in form, there will be no hotter favourite for British gold in the late summer of 2000 than Ainslie in the Laser class on the treacherous waters of Sydney Harbour.

It is wise to catch Ainslie well away from the water. By reputation, and his own admission, his character on the ocean waves takes a dramatic turn for the worse. Those fortunate enough to meet him on land find a charming, nervous and shy boy-next-door who has the pigeon-toed, slightly hunched gait of a professional tennis player. His voice is quiet and his laugh ready. Rare twitches of arrogance disturb the net curtain of modesty.

From his earliest days racing Optimists round Falmouth Bay, from his father Roddy, who skippered a boatload of amateurs into a highly creditable seventh place in the inaugural Whitbread Round the World Race, Ainslie has absorbed the natural suspicion of the old sea dog. One word out of place and great tumbling waves of humility roll in, a reminder of the higher forces at work in his sport. But, at the office, beware.

"Everyone has to believe in themselves and I'm no different. I'm not a very nice person on the water, I don't give much away, I'm much more aggressive. I suppose I'm a split personality, but you have to be aggressive, you've got to go out there and get stuck in. You can't sit back and let someone else take that gap.

"My coach says I should be more assertive off the water and be seen to be more confident in myself and I think he's probably right, but there's a fine line because I can see the arrogance coming back and hitting me in the face next time."

Ainslie likens sailing Lasers to racing touring cars: high-speed trains of bucking brute force where the tiniest hint of daylight has to be exploited with forceful elbows and instinctive ruthlessness. Lasers are four metres long, weigh 63kg, have no keel and are capable of speeds of 20 knots. Balancing on a fast-moving dinner plate might be a simpler exercise. Most of a Laser race is spent on the edge of physics and legality, one of the reasons why Ainslie's preferred reading is the Olympic rulebook.

"It's a very quick boat and everyone has the same equipment and the same speed. So it's really down to the sailors, how they sail the boat and where they put it on the race course. It's very demanding tactically and physically. The harder you work the boat, the quicker you go." Much of the past three weeks away from sailing has been spent building up his strength. A race can last anywhere between an hour and two hours, each moment a constant balance of forces; assessing wind shifts, anticipating rival moves. "When a chance comes up, you need to have the energy to exploit it," says Ainslie.

About once every four years, the nation turns to its yachtsmen and asks for medals. In between, no one takes much notice, though the success of the youth development system in sailing deserves closer attention. Britain has produced a world youth champion in every one of the last six years. Ainslie was one. The image is wrong, he says. "Sailing is not thought of as a hard sport, it's a little elitist. I think that is beginning to change, but what we need is a few good names who can lift sailing's profile."

Far from being the preserve of the wealthy, Ainslie became financially self-sufficient in the middle of last year due mainly to the sponsorship of Colonial, an Australian-based financial services firm who have set up an elite squad to help English athletes. Funding from the National Lottery has further eased his plight, but his parents bore most of the burden of his earlier career and he still lives at home, in Lymington.

Ironically for his sponsors, one of Ainslie's main rivals in Sydney will be the Australian, Michael Blackburn, a man of imperturbable temperament who will be sailing on his doorstep in waters he knew as a child. Despite the fickle conditions, Ainslie outsailed him in the first of several pre- Olympic warm-up regattas earlier this year, a timely boost to morale as the champion heads off to Melbourne to defend his world title early in the New Year. "Right under the Opera House, sailing isn't what most of us are used to," he says. "It was very enclosed conditions, flat water and very shifty winds, flowing over the buildings and the hills. Usually you can anticipate the wind, but there it just lands right on top of you. If you go overboard worrying about it, it could really blow your mind. You've got to find a happy medium."

Less difficult to combat will be the slow tightening of the pressure in the months leading up to the Olympics. Ainslie's name will be written in unwashable ink on every list of potential British medallists, alongside the usual bankers, Redgrave and Pinsent. Expectation rather than inexperience will be the enemy this time, though Ainslie's gentle chuckle at the notion of attending a session by the team's resident psychologist augurs well for his ability to cope. "I always reckoned that if you don't have a problem, you don't go looking for one."

Right now, horizons stretch no further than Sydney harbour in September 2000. Beyond, Ainslie has ambitions to tackle different Olympic classes, Soling or the Star, before heading for bigger waters in the Round the World Race and the America's Cup. "For me, the motivation is the competition. I don't think of myself as No 1, I just see someone else who wants to beat me and I've got to work hard to stay on top of them. I might be ranked No 1, but on the start line that doesn't make much difference." His rivals, I suspect, regard Ben Ainslie as different class already.