Sailing: Robertson books an Olympic date

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The Independent Online

The countdown to the Olympics has begun. Shirley Robertson, a gold medallist at Sydney in 2000 and her crew of Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton left the dock at the Olympic Classes World Championships here knowing that if they finished the final race of the women's yngling class in 20th place or better - thereby finishing in the top eight in the event - they would be the first athletes in any sport to be selected for the British 2004 Olympic team.

Robertson and her crew, winners of their class in the pre-Olympic regatta in Athens recently, were lying sixth overall yesterday morning and Robertson was clear about her plans. "It would have been nice to get on to the podium," she said, "but the main aim is to be selected so we are just going to sail a clean race and keep out of trouble."

Her race strategy gave British management some heart palpitations when the boat was buried in the pack off the start and only in the mid-teens at the first top mark. But they finished relatively comfortably in 17th place to end the regatta seventh overall. After a selection committee huddle throughout the afternoon, Simon Clegg, chef de mission for Team GB for Athens 2004, announced that Robertson and her two crew were selected for the Olympics.

"It was hard being at a world championship and yet sailing not to win but to try to finish in the top eight," Robertson said afterwards. "But it is fantastic to know now that we are going to Athens and for me doing it with a team rather than by myself is a fascinating challenge."

Things have been going well for Britain here. After losing their mast at the Pre-Olympics and finishing just out of the medals at the European Championships in Portugal last week, Iain Percy and Steve Mitchell have peaked when it matters and are due to complete their series in the Star class today having led the regatta from its early stages. They are likely to join Robertson in the Olympic team tonight.

And Ben Ainslie is on track in the Finn class. He finishes on Wednesday and is tucked comfortably in second place after six of the 11 races.

In the 49er class, matters are less clear. Paul Brotherton and Mark Asquith, runners-up in the recent pre-Olympic regatta in Athens, are languishing (by their standards) outside the top 10, while their rivals, Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks, have hit a seam of top form and lead their group in imperious style. Brotherton and Asquith have a mountain to climb for the Pre-Olympics winners if they are to prevent Draper and Hiscocks from making the team when their event draws to a close on Wednesday.

And although the Tornados are at the early stages, Leigh McMillan and Mark Bulkeley already have two wins and lead the British charge from the Sydney 2000 team members, Hugh Styles and Adam May.

But things are not quite going according to plan for the British in the Laser, where Paul Goodison is outside the top 10 and the men's 470 where the pre-Olympic regatta silver medallists Nick Rogers and Jo Glanfield are outside of the top 20.

Today, though, will be a memorable one for Shirley Robertson as she starts a clear year of preparation for a repeat of her Sydney glory.

"Having won the pre-Olympics we are getting to like standing on the podium and we are actually quite disappointed with our result," she said.

"But the main aim was to qualify for Athens and we have done that, so we will wake up knowing that we have done what we have been working so hard to achieve and that we can now get on with the business of preparing for my fourth Olympics. I can't wait."

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