An email conversation with...Shirley Robertson: 'I can shut my eyes and still feel what it was like to receive my medal'

Going for third Olympic gold in Beijing; Pride at receiving OBE at Scottish palace; Scary voyage in epic Bay of Biscay weather; Athens team-mates jump ship to rival boat
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The Independent Online

No, I think I started winning too late in life! But if I'm still enjoying it and still doing well I'll carry on.

Your husband Jamie Boag, is also a sailor. Are you still managing to avoid the topic of what you have sweetly described as 'rudder tiller bollocks' when you are at home?

It's good that we have something like that in common. There are times when Jamie can help me ponder certain things, but we don't talk about it too much. We both love sailing as an activity, not just racing. Quite often we go down to the British Virgin Islands, which makes for a great holiday.

Who takes control of the remote control?

Jamie does. We were quite happy with four channels, but then we were fighting with the whole satellite thing and I had to relent and we got one of those digital boxes. My problem is that once I start watching I can never stop. I like to watch soaps - I'll keep up with Coronation Street and EastEnders.

Do you ever wonder what kind of riches the likes of you and other British Olympic champions - such as Ben Ainslie and Iain Percy - might have had if you had all been world-class tennis players instead of sailors? Are you happy with your lot or do you feel your commitment and excellence are too often overlooked, other than during Olympic years?

We chose sailing because we love it, but yes, you do think about that sort of thing from time to time. Looking back, it was sometimes a desperate struggle, not just to have a wage but also having the money to buy equipment. Obviously, things have got better since the National Lottery funding. And for the men, like Ben Ainslie and Iain Percy, there's good money to be earned sailing in events like the America's Cup.

Do you ever see yourself getting into the transatlantic lark? How did you enjoy doing a 24-hour dinghy race in Hong Kong last summer?

I do sail offshore quite frequently. I did the Fastnet race last year, which took about five days, and to go transatlantic would take around twice that time, so yes, I would go for a longer time.

Your career is stacked with high points. Which has been the lowest point?

I think the Atlanta Games, where I finished fourth. The worst part of it was that if I had done a few small things differently, I would have got a medal. You have to learn from your low points, and I took a lot of lessons from Atlanta, particularly about my preparation. My approach was too serious, too intense. There wasn't any fun. Don't get me wrong, there's never too much fun involved in preparing for an Olympics, but you have to have a sense of proportion about it, especially in a competition where you are competing for a whole week, otherwise it will mean too much. You have to try and find that combination of being physically relaxed and mentally energised.

Star signs - rubbish, or spookily correct?

As a Cancer, I suppose I should be comfortable in the water. But I kind of think it's all nonsense.

Why was it so important to you to get your OBE at Holyrood Palace rather than Buckingham Palace after the Athens Olympics?

We had the option, and it was special to get my award in Scotland along with other Scottish medallists such as the cyclist, Chris Hoy. It was a beautiful setting, and it was kind of intimate. At Buckingham Palace they tend to stack them high on these occasions.

You described your overwhelming emotion upon winning an Olympic gold in Sydney at your third attempt as "relief". How would you characterise what you felt in Athens? And can you even contemplate what emotion might be involved in Beijing two years from now?

I think I felt relieved again in Athens. In Sydney it was a big thing for me because I had spent a long time trying to do it, and I was aware that so many people sail competitively for so long in their careers without winning medals, so I felt relieved that I hadn't messed up. In Athens it was slightly different because I was in a team and I felt in some way responsible for them. They were both younger than me and I made the decisions about where to go, how to train etc. At the end it was a case of, 'Thank God it all came together'. It was an amazing emotional high, and to share it with other people made it very special. But for some reason, Sydney is more vivid in my mind. I can shut my eyes and still feel what it was like to be standing on the steps of the Sydney Opera House receiving my medal...

Moving from a 45kg European boat to a Yngling keelboat of 650kg is like switching from go-kart racing to Formula One. Are you completely at home in one now?

Actually it's more like a transit van! In a dinghy you can use your athleticism to get out of trouble. You can't do that in a keelboat - you have to do everything really, really well. You have to steer perfectly, trim the sails perfectly, anticipate perfectly. I am by nature a perfectionist, and it is hard to achieve. I suppose that's what makes it so appealing.

What happened to your two happy crew-mates from the 2004 Olympic yngling boat, Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb?

They are both still sailing - in fact they are in a rival boat.

Doesn't that feel a bit odd?

I suppose so - but time moves on. Sarah Ayton had helmed before we teamed up, and she wanted to get back to it so that is what she is doing now.

How do you relax?

I like to be at home. Not very rock 'n' roll, is it? But when you travel around all year it's nice to get back to simple pleasures like going out with friends or going to the cinema. The thought of going abroad for a holiday - I just couldn't face it.

What music do you listen to?

I have an iPod, but it's old school stuff I listen to - soul music, Frank Sinatra...

Have you ever feared for your life while sailing? Are you a good swimmer - or is that a stupid question?

A lot of fishermen cannot swim, and that is probably a good thing because you do not want to end up in the water. About eight years ago, I was taking part in the Volvo Ocean race and we hit some weather in the Bay of Biscay that was quite epic. It was the first time that I had been sailing on that kind of boat and I was quite pleased that I was with some really good people. I did wonder at one point if we were going to get back all right.

You have written recently about the importance of appearing confident, even when you might not feel that way. In what circumstances have you done that? And did the shiny car you insisted on your team being driven around in when you prepared for the last Olympics really have one-upmanship quality as far as your opponents were concerned?

We were just trying to look professional, even if we weren't always doing awfully well. People notice things like whether you have a clean car, or how you park the boat. If you do those kind of things well, it looks as if it's all going all right.

You were active in promoting London's successful bid for the 2012 Olympics. How do you hope you helped, what do you think did the trick as far as the IOC were concerned?

I hope I helped drum up support in Scotland - but it wasn't always that easy. I remember going to Hampden with Seb Coe only nine months before the decision, and feeling that people were not overly enthusiastic. I thought at the time, "If we can't get the interest at home, this is going to be a long road." But Seb and his team did a marvellous job, and I think the bid was really clever. It was about legacy, not just for Britain but Olympic sport and youth. The rival bids were all about what cities could offer - they looked like travel brochures. I think the IOC picked up on that.

Do you have a sporting hero or heroine?

I remember Mike McIntyre winning an Olympic sailing medal in 1988. He was a fellow Scot who had a similar upbringing to me, and when the Games introduced a single-handed class for women, I thought, "Well, he was from Scotland and he did it..." Liz McColgan is another sporting figure I admire - I met her recently and was excited about it. She's got great hardness - a strong, tough, competitive woman. I admire that.

How much of a factor in your decision to seek a third Olympic gold was being able to call upon Annie Lush, Cambridge rowing blue and world match racing champion, as part of your new crew? And how are the trials for the third crew member going?

Annie has a great talent and attitude. She absolutely wants to be better, and she's always looking for answers. We have trialled another girl for the third place recently and all seems to be going well.

Which three words best describe your character?

A little mad.

Attachment: The Shirley Robertson Lowdown

* Started sailing My father built a kit boat and we sailed it at Loch Ard Sailing Club in the Trossachs

* Duration in current class Since 2002

* Greatest strengths in sailing Professionalism

* Greatest weakness in sailing Not being able to stop

* Biggest goal Another Olympic gold medal

* Other interests Being at home, cycling, films, dancing

Sailing honours OBE, BBC South Sports Personality of the Year Award 2000 and ISAF World Sailor of the Year 2000

Sailing career

2003 SPA Olympic Class Regatta, Netherlands, bronze

2003 Olympic Class Week, Hyeres, 4th

2003 Princess Sophia Trophy, Palma, gold medal

2003 Olympic Class Week, Barcelona, gold medal

2002 Olympic Test Event, Athens, bronze medal

2002 Yngling World Championships, 16th

2001 Yngling World Championships, 14th

2000 Sydney Olympics, gold medal

2000 Europe World Championships, silver medal

1999 Pre-Olympic Regatta, Sydney, bronze medal

1999 Europe European Championships, silver medal

1999 Europe World Championships, bronze medal

1998 Europe World Championships, silver medal

1996 Atlanta Olympics, 4th

1992 Barcelona Olympics, 9th

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