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."

Arts and Entertainment
filmPoldark production team claims innocence of viewers' ab frenzy
Life and Style
Google marks the 81st anniversary of the Loch Ness Monster's most famous photograph
techIt's the 81st anniversary of THAT iconic photograph
News
Katie Hopkins makes a living out of courting controversy
people
News
General Election
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
  • Get to the point
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: Office Administrator

£14000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Office Administrator is requ...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - Commercial Vehicles - OTE £40,000

£12000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion and growth of ...

Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer - Sheffield - £50,000

£40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Senior PHP Developer position with a...

Recruitment Genius: Operations Leader - Plasma Processing

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: An Operations Leader is required to join a lea...

Day In a Page

Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

Open letter to David Cameron

Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

You don't say!

Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

So what is Mubi?

Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

The hardest job in theatre?

How to follow Kevin Spacey
Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

This human tragedy has been brewing for years

EU states can't say they were not warned
Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

Women's sportswear

From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

Clinton's clothes

Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

The wars that come back to haunt us

David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders