Sailing: Around the world - the last great quest for yacht racing's holy Grael

Even Ben Ainslie admires the Brazilian's great talent. Stuart Alexander talks to a master mariner

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the rock star to beat them all? When he wakes up in the morning it is unlikely that the 44-year-old Torben Schmidt-Grael ever allows himself such self-indulgence. But when he is out on a sailing race course, the man who has won five Olympic medals is given every ounce of respect by his peers, not least by the Briton who is treated as reverentially the world over.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the rock star to beat them all? When he wakes up in the morning it is unlikely that the 44-year-old Torben Schmidt-Grael ever allows himself such self-indulgence. But when he is out on a sailing race course, the man who has won five Olympic medals is given every ounce of respect by his peers, not least by the Briton who is treated as reverentially the world over.

Ben Ainslie, at 27, already has two golds and a silver to show his children and grandchildren. Many would bank on there being more to come. But even he acknowledges Grael's excellence.

In terms of adulation in his native Brazil, Grael ranks almost alongside Pele - and in terms of magical talent he is not diminished by comparison either. When Grael and Brazil's other current top yachtsman Robert Scheidt went home with their gold medals from Athens, they were at the front of the parade.

Both Grael and Ainslie have that indefinable ability and quality which separates genius from the merely brilliant. Just as a top mathematician or musician can barely explain why everything is so obvious to them, much less teach that skill to others, so these two can work their way up the ever-shifting pathways of wind and current that form an Olympic race course to come out in the lead.

There has, of course, also been a huge amount of hard work and effort to maximise something with which they were seemingly born. "It wasn't all that easy when I started," Grael says. "I had to try really hard and the results did not come right away."

Nor was it easy financially. Grael's father was in the army and the family income had to stretch not only to support Torben's obvious talent but that of Lars, his elder brother. Lars was also set for a glittering career, with two Olympic bronze medals to his name, when he was struck by a powerboat at a regatta in 1998 and lost his right leg, after which he took up the the role of coach and administrator.

Grael shares his ancestry with the man also credited with god-like status in Olympic sailing, Denmark's quadruple gold medallist Paul Elvstrom. Grandfather Preben was Danish and bought the fledgling Grael his first boat before inviting him as crew on board an old-fashioned 6-Metre class yacht in the home town of Niteroi. The asset was kept within the family as Grael made his own way through the dinghy apprenticeship of Penguins and Snipes while also sailing with his twin uncles Eric and Axel in Stars and Solings.

World junior champion in San Diego by the time he was 18, Grael went on to win, securing a business administration degree along the way, Olympic silver in Long Beach in 1984 in the Soling and then bronze in the Star in 1988, gold in 1996, bronze in 2000 and gold this year. He also took the role of navigator on the Italian America's Cup challenger Prada in Auckland in 1999-2000 and 2002-03.

Now, as well as having a long-term eye on the Beijing Games in 2008, he has turned his attention to a quite different style of racing - the one thing missing from his packed CV. Next year he will take on the daunting challenge of the Volvo Ocean Race, the pinnacle of off-shore racing, skippering a fully crewed 70-footer around the world.

"Of course, a Volvo Ocean Race is very different from Olympic sailing. It is a different game, but there are always similarities. It's becoming more and more of a tactical race," says Grael. "But I have always wanted to sail on the long offshore races. Sailing around the planet is a great challenge and I am looking forward to it. I would be the skipper, but I will drive the boat as well. I have had experience of being part of a very small team at Olympic level and part of a very big team during two America's Cup campaigns and that will help a lot."

His Olympic rivals expect nothing but the best. Comparing Grael with Ainslie, James Spithill, the 25-year old who has taken over as helmsman on the Luna Rossa America's Cup team that still bears the Prada name, says: "They are similar, but very different. I wouldn't be surprised to see either one in front."

But friend and rival Iain Percy, Ainslie's predecessor as gold medallist in the Finn singlehander but well beaten by Grael in Athens, sees a difference in styles that would have Grael backing his judgement in light and difficult conditions, Ainslie more inclined to reducing the variables and exploiting youth and fitness. Ainslie sees him as "one of the most talented sailors there is", but is not overawed.

Grael acknowledges that he is given to backing his feelings but adds: "I do have a European side, especially in education, but my environment is very Brazilian. Perhaps that blend is good."

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