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."

Voices
Homeless Veterans charity auction: Cook with Angela Hartnett and Neil Borthwick at Merchants Tavern
charity appealTime is running out to secure your favourite lot as our auction closes at 2pm tomorrow
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Sport
Amir Khan is engaged in a broader battle than attempting to win a fight with Floyd Mayweather
boxing Exclusive: Amir Khan reveals plans to travel to Pakistan
News
Stacey Dooley was the only woman to be nominated in last month’s Grierson awards
mediaClare Balding and Davina McCall among those overlooked for Grierson awards
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
Joseph Kynaston Reeves arguing with Russell Brand outside the RBS’s London offices on Friday
voicesDJ Taylor: The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a worker's rant to Russell Brand
News
Twitchers see things differently, depending on their gender
scienceNew study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Life and Style
A still from the 1939 film version of Margaret Mitchell's 'Gone with the Wind'
life
News
Xander van der Burgt, at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew
scienceA Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
Arts and Entertainment
British actor Idris Elba is also a DJ and rapper who played Ibiza last summer
film
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Finance Director

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...

Recruitment Genius: Medico-Legal Assistant

£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...

Ashdown Group: (PHP / Python) - Global Media firm

£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...

The Jenrick Group: Quality Inspector

£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...

Day In a Page

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

Panto dames: before and after

From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

The man who hunts giants

A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there
The 12 ways of Christmas: Spare a thought for those who will be working to keep others safe during the festive season

The 12 ways of Christmas

We speak to a dozen people who will be working to keep others safe, happy and healthy over the holidays
Birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends, new study shows

The male exhibits strange behaviour

A new study shows that birdwatching men have a lot in common with their feathered friends...
Diaries of Evelyn Waugh, Virginia Woolf and Noël Coward reveal how they coped with the December blues

Famous diaries: Christmas week in history

Noël Coward parties into the night, Alan Clark bemoans the cost of servants, Evelyn Waugh ponders his drinking…
From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

From noble to narky, the fall of the open letter

The great tradition of St Paul and Zola reached its nadir with a hungry worker's rant to Russell Brand, says DJ Taylor
A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore: A prodigal daughter has a breakthrough

A Christmas ghost story by Alison Moore

The story was published earlier this month in 'Poor Souls' Light: Seven Curious Tales'
Marian Keyes: The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment

Marian Keyes

The author on her pre-approved Christmas, true love's parking implications and living in the moment
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef creates an Italian-inspired fish feast for Christmas Eve

Bill Granger's Christmas Eve fish feast

Bill's Italian friends introduced him to the Roman Catholic custom of a lavish fish supper on Christmas Eve. Here, he gives the tradition his own spin…
Liverpool vs Arsenal: Brendan Rodgers is fighting for his reputation

Rodgers fights for his reputation

Liverpool manager tries to stay on his feet despite waves of criticism
Amir Khan: 'The Taliban can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'

Amir Khan attacks the Taliban

'They can threaten me but I must speak out... innocent kids, killed over nothing. It’s sick in the mind'
Michael Calvin: Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Sepp Blatter is my man of the year in sport. Bring on 2015, quick