Blonde ambition: Countdown to the Olympics

For Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson, only world domination will do. They tell Mike Rowbottom about their determination to win Yngling gold in Beijing
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The Independent Online

Viewing the capital's panorama from the bar at the top of the Hilton on Park Lane hotel – the Oxo Tower, the London Eye, Battersea Power Station with its four huge, dormant chimneys – provokes an irrational sense of ownership. Those who gaze out on the spectacle are, momentarily, lords of all they survey. Or in the case of the three blondes sitting in the window seat, ladies.

You get the feeling, however, that for Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson, the favourites to win the Yngling sailing class at the impending Beijing Olympics, the sense of omnipotence may remain even after they have taken thel ift back down to terra firma. Their record in recent years, which includes victory in the last two world championships, the European title and last year's trial event on the unpredictable Olympic course at Qingdao, has demonstrated their class, technique and collective determination. They are, patently, a dominant force. And yet they are happy – not ecstatic, but happy – to entertain the rather simple image which has been appended to them by the media: "Three Blondes in a Boat."

That name, of course, was applied to a different combination at the last Olympics, in Athens, when Ayton and Webb were skippered by Shirley Robertson, who was already an Olympic gold medallist, to a victory in the Yngling class so comprehensive that they were able to take the last day off and watch the rower Matthew Pinsent earn his fourth Olympic title in company with Messrs Cracknell, Coode and Williams. By their own admission, they felt like guilty schoolgirls missing class.

Four years on, Ayton – who back then went by the omnipresent sailing nickname of Nipper – has become skipper and she and Webb have recruited the young talent of Wilson, a double medallist at the world youth championships. Enter Pippa the Nipper.

"Pippa ticked all the boxes," says Ayton.

"She's got blonde hair," adds Wilson.

It's probably a joke.

Ayton was the prime mover in the reshuffle that took place in the wake of the Athens victory and although you could not call the split with Robertson affable – the veteran Olympian formed a new crew in the Yngling and challenged for Beijing selection all the way down to the wire – it has been accommodated without undue unpleasantness.

"We haven't really crossed paths out of competition," Ayton says, "and when you are racing you haven't really got time for a tea and a chat. But there is no bad feeling." A set expression on her face hints that this might just be a party line, but if it is, it is being toed by all.

The Ayton crew secured their Olympic place with a victory in last year's world championships in Cascais, Portugal, but an incident at the end of their last race there almost sank them. Wilson slipped off the boat, to be retrieved by a desperate arm flung out by Webb.

"My role is to lean back off the boat with my feet hooked into a toe strap," Wilson recalls. "I don't know why, but as we were going round the last buoy I missed it and I just felt myself falling backwards. I landed in the water, but Sarah somehow grabbed me by the shoulder and dragged me back in."

Webb, grinning, offers her account of the incident. "I had my back to Pippa when it happened. I was looking at Sarah, and she just said 'Pippa's gone', without any obvious emotion."

Her skipper intones: "We should have left her."

It's probably a joke.

"We would have had to go back and pick her up," Webb continues. "We couldn't have completed the course otherwise."

OK – it was definitely a joke.

Ayton takes up the running. "We learned from that experience. If it hadn't happened then, maybe it would have happened at the Games."

Clearly, some serious positive thinking has been going on here, and Ayton and her crew are quick to praise the input of the team's psychologist, Ben Chell. One of the trademarks of Robertson's successful crew was a determination to be smart in all they did and, more importantly, to be seen to be being smart by all their rivals. That philosophy has endured among the new trio.

"It's all about image and perception," Webb says. "We make sure our competitors never see us struggling with our preparations. We always do things methodically and together."

Wilson adds: "Sailing is a very uncontrollable sport by its nature, so what we have to do is to control everything we can, to dot every 'i' and cross every 't'."

In an event strung over days psychological strength is a key element, and the Yngling crew believe they are in an ideally encouraging environment within a team that has been one of Britain's successes at the last two Olympics.

"You just have to look around you," says Webb, gesturing to the other British sailing personnel dotted around the bar. They are here for their farewell event, many floors downstairs, later in the evening. Among the personnel toying with fruit juices and sparkling water are the former 49ers world champions Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes and the double Olympic champion Ben Ainslie. "When you see people around like Ben, a legend," adds Webb, "all it does is give you confidence that you are doing the right thing."

If sailing is an unpredictable sport, the Yngling class – involving heavy keel boats – is a peculiarly testing one. The boats, with their wealth of technical variations, have been likened to Formula One cars. Ayton offers a different analogy. "They're like a very finely tuned Transit van," she says. As such, it is exceedingly tricky to make the fine judgement involved in bringing the boat to the start line not too late, in order to be competitive and not too early, thus to be disqualified.

"It's like when you are on a motorway and you get stuck behind big lorries," Ayton says. "They take their time going uphill, moving through all the gears, and once they are going, they are going. But then once you get to a downhill stretch they are bloody hard to stop. That's basically us. Once you've got on a roll you are committed, so you have to time your run to the start line very carefully. It makes it very hard."

Luckily for her crew, Ayton – who is due to marry the British Olympic windsurfer Nick Dempsey in October – is very skilled. But endless travel and practice is not the only sacrifice these three Olympians have to make. They have also to ensure that their collective weight does not exceed 205kg – if it did, they would not be allowed to race.

"It's generally agreed that the heavier you are, the faster the boat goes," says Ayton. "The idea is to stop big crews from the United States steamrollering lighter opposition from Asia or Europe. The bigger you are, the more power you have to handle the boat."

The name of the game is economy, and judging by the tame drinks in front of these three, precious few diversions from that course are entertained.

"We are weighed before every race," Webb says. "You used to be able to go in completely naked. But then one Australian guy who was doing the weighing had a heart attack when the whole of the Dutch women's team came in without any clothes on. Now you have to wear a bikini as a minimum."

Setting aside for the moment the pressing question of why this Australian should have registered any objection, it seems fitting to ask about prospects for the impending Olympic competition.

"We had a meeting about this recently," Ayton says. "We all feel that if we don't win, we will be absolutely gutted. Anything else but gold would be a letdown."

No one seeing the resolution on the three faces around the table would doubt their resolve. The official website for the Yngling girls, however, contains a mission statement which sets their ambitions even higher. It talks about "world domination".

It's probably a joke.

Ynglings to skiffs: Beijing boats

FINN Single-handed class of dinghy. Has been part of the Olympics since 1952. A men-only event until Beijing.

YNGLING Designed in 1967 as a smaller sailboat, intended to sail with two or three crew. Chosen as the Olympic women's keelboat for 2004 and 2008.

49er SKIFF Seen as the most difficult dinghy to master. The 49er is a double-handed trapeze boat used at Olympics since 2000.

RS:X Windsurfing discipline replacing the Mistral class in Beijing. All sailors use the same boards, fins and sails.

470 Named after the overall length (in centimetres) of the boat, the 470 is a double-handed monohull dinghy which is designed to plane easily.

LASER Dinghy class became a men's Olympic class boat in 1996 and can be sailed by one or two crew. The smaller Radial version has been chosen as the Olympic class for single-handed women in next month's Games.

STAR A one-design racing keelboat for two people, the Star does not use a spinnaker when sailing downwind. Has been an Olympic class since 1932.

TORNADO A catamaran with a two-man crew, making its last appearance at an Olympics. Designed in 1967, the Tornado flies on one of its two hulls, while the crew balance the boat with their weight.

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