Ainslie determined to put on Laser show

One of Britain's youngest Olympic medal hopes tests his strength in next month's World Championships. Ian Stafford met him
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There seem to be two main images of yachting to the general public. The participants either all wear blazers and flannels, are called Rupert, and sip pink gins at Cowes every summer, or alternatively, if they are a little more serious, have long bushy beards, wear thick woolly jumpers, and probably serve up fish fingers to their hungry crew.

Ben Ainslie would like it to be known that, when it comes to the serious stuff, both the above images are now history. For a start, Ainslie is only 19 years old but, despite his age, is seen to be a major contender for an Olympic medal in Atlanta this summer in the Laser class. Not just any medal either, but the shiny one.

Tall, lean, determined and fit, Ainslie's life off the ocean waves is vastly different from what you and I have thought.

"Whenever I'm not actually sailing, I run for 90 minutes each morning, followed by a two-hour weights session in the afternoon," he explains, in an understanding and tolerant manner.

"I concentrate on heavy endurance sessions and high intensity heart-rate work. To give yourself the best advantage in a Laser dinghy, you should weigh around 78 kilos. Much less or more, and you will slow yourself down. It's rather like a boxer making the weight. I have a low fat, high carbohydrate diet, and I am very fit because I have to be."

He pauses for a second while this image-shattering information is digested, before adding the coup de grace. "People assume sailing is like playing bowls. I can assure you it isn't."

There's much more. When it comes to racing Ainslie, despite his tender years, already has a reputation for taking no prisoners. He may be softly spoken: sitting in his parents' living-room, but out on the seas, travelling at speeds up to 20 knots, in his highly manoeuvrable, 13ft 10in, single- sail dinghy, he becomes a fiercesome competitor.

"In the Laser class the boats aren't personalised," he continues. "In other words, we use whatever boat is given to us at any event. Nobody has an initial advantage, because they are all exactly the same. It therefore boils down to who can catch the right winds, and that makes the racing very tactical and close."

How close? "Very. At the Olympics the races will be shorter, lasting about an hour. There will be a lot of changing angles and rounding markers, and I expect a lot of us to be doing it together, in a tight group. I'll definitely be getting stuck in there and fighting my way to the front.

"It's a bit like grand prix racing. There's a lot of bumping and colliding, and a fair amount of verbal exchanges during competition, especially if you are seen to be racing aggressively. It's fair to say that I'm often seen in this light."

It's also fair to say that, despite his little-known name today, Ben Ainslie might well become one of the British stars of the Olympics. He may still be a teenager, making him the youngest member of the British yachting team by some distance, but his sailing curriculum vitae would make a 30-year-old very proud.

The world Laser Radial champion in 1993, Ainslie then leapt up a standard to the Lasers, coming second in the World Youth Championships in 1994, and winning the same title last year. Initially gearing himself towards the 2000 Sydney Olympics, he suddenly discovered that he could more than mix it with the grown-ups, winning the national Olympic trial last year, and then the St Petersburg regatta this year, before then recording two second places in the Miami Olympic regatta and the Auckland Olympicsail. On this sort of consistent form, Ainslie is a young man to be feared, and a definite gold medal contender.

"The point about Laser racing is that anyone in the top 10 has a chance of winning," Ainslie goes on to explain. "The guy who came second in the World Championships last year finished 120th in the Olympic regatta a fortnight before. But I have to fancy my chances, and even though I have so much time on my side if it doesn't work out in Atlanta, the way I've been performing recently suggests I'm in with a good shout of a result."

Others have no doubt. "He's the most determined youth sailor I've seen in 20 years," said Rod Carr, the British Olympic sailing team manager. "He's the most talented sailor of his generation." Jim Saltonstall, Britain's Olympic coach, shares this view. "I'm convinced he'll turn into a great sportsman," is his verdict.

Which makes Ainslie's introduction to the sport even more unlikely. His father, Roddy, was himself a sailor of the highest standard. At the helm of "Second Life", he finished seventh in the inaugural Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973. In later years, he took to holidaying with his young family aboard their 40ft yawl.

Roddy takes up the story. "We'd sailed down from our home back then in north Wales to Cornwall. It was a trip we often made, but this time it went terribly wrong. A lobster pot wrapped itself round the propeller, and we ended up wrecked on the rocks. We all had to bale out and watch as the cruising boat broke up and sank."

That's a bit embarrassing for a Whitbread skipper, isn't it Roddy? "Well, I was OK sailing down the middle, it was just round the edge where I had problems. The local press all covered the occasion and, as a result, Ben received a phone call."

It came from a lady who suggested the eight-year-old should come and join the local sailing club at Restronguet, on the Fal estuary. Whether she felt his father's sailing example left much to be desired is not known, but it turned out to be a significant moment in the short life of Ainslie Jnr.

Young Ben began sailing in Optimists, the children's dinghy, helped by his enthusiastic parents, Roddy and Sue, who moved down to Cornwall. By 11, he had won his first national title, the junior championships in the Optimists Class, beating children considerably older than him in the process. He took the same title the following year, and entered the World Championships a record four times until, at 15, he moved to Laser Radials.

"We couldn't see it back then, but people at Restronguet were telling us that Ben would become a world champion one day," Roddy adds. "He was always determined, even back then, and totally fearless. At that age, you can understand some of his colleagues being nervous about sailing on rough, Cornish seas. But not Ben."

His son cuts in. "I was totally besotted with sailing. What helped was the fact that I had two friends in the club who were as determined as I was to be the best. It created a healthy rivalry. We'd go out sailing in the winter months, even when it was snowing."

The inevitable was accepted in 1994. Ben put his A-levels on hold, turned into a full-time sailor, and set his sights on Atlanta. Spending around pounds 12,000 a year on his sport, Ben just about breaks even by living at home, and gratefully accepts grants from, among others, the Royal Yachting Association and the Sports Aid Foundation.

But then again, he does have "Team Ainslie" behind him. You may notice that the whereabouts of the Ainslie home has not yet been mentioned. This is because it keeps changing. Right now, it is a rented cottage in Lymington, just on the southern edge of the New Forest, but only until the end of this month. Roddy sold his wood products companies, retired early, and now acts as Ben's taxi driver, secretary and second coach. Wherever Ben is sailing, he and his wife set up camp. They have turned themselves into true sporting travellers, wandering the world's coastlines like Berbers in the Sahara.

So, while Ben sets off for South Africa, where the World Championships begin on 10 April, an event where he hopes to rubber-stamp his Olympic medal credentials, Roddy and Sue leave for Savannah, Georgia.

"The first thing we'll do is drive to the first motel we see before later finding a house to rent for us and Ben right up until after the Games," Roddy explained. "That will be Ben's base for the campaign. Then, when it's all over, we'll return to Lymington and move into the hotel across the road from here until we find somewhere else. It could be anywhere."

That is some commitment. With parents prepared to become nomads for the cause, and with an obvious talent, track records and desire to reach the highest pinnacle of his sport, Ben Ainslie has every right to expect a glorious summer's sailing off the coast of Georgia.

This country has always enjoyed a good tradition of Olympic success, but never before have we sent a 19-year-old sailor to the Games, let alone one who fully expects to return with a medal. The name Ben Ainslie might not mean very much outside sailing circles. By the end of the first week in August, however, it could be a very different story.