Sailing: Robertson times push for gold to perfection

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When she smiles, even Mr Colgate cannot compete and in the southern French sunshine of Hyères, Shirley Robertson was flashing one of her finest.

When she smiles, even Mr Colgate cannot compete and in the southern French sunshine of Hyères, Shirley Robertson was flashing one of her finest.

Not without reason. She had plenty to smile about. In the marina was her white, brand new boat, a 20ft Yngling for her crew, Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton to fuss over. In the park over the road was her Volvo-sponsored, shiny black 4x4, "Legally Blonde" written in lipstick pink on the back, to tow it. In the bank were a first and a third from the boat's opening pair of races. Yesterday, an 11th place and two more firsts kept Robertson top of the standings at the halfway point.

And those results had been chalked up in the conditions in which she had previously struggled to match her rivals, the sort of light and tricky winds which can so often dominate the annual French Olympic regatta where half of Britain's Athens squad are warming up. "I have good karma at the moment," she says, which has not always been the case for an athlete who has been, at times,far from calm.

But her life changed in many ways in 2000, most significantly when she won the gold medal in Sydney, her third Olympics, in the single-handed Europe dinghy. She has moved on to the three-up keelboat, which is making its debut as the fourth women-only Olympic sailing class, and secured the Great Britain team slot at the world championship in Cadiz last September.

Since then life has had a distinctly Spanish feel. Under the tutelage of the 1996 silver medallist and America's Cup skipper, Ian Walker, she and her crew spent six winter months in Palma de Mallorca, 10 days on, four days off, sailing six or seven hours a day. "He [Walker] is fantastic and won't let us get away with anything, but that's fine," Robertson says. "He has brought us discipline on the race course. It is all coming together."

At the same time they have been working on a sail design development programme with the North loft in Fareham, and have recently taken delivery of the new boat, which was just a bare shell. It has since been fitted out at the Devoti facility in Essex with "lots of ideas from the boys" about the boat handling systems. "She's a Burnham lass," adds Robertson, showing undue affection for a bit of glass-reinforced plastic.

Robertson is also very comfortable with her crew, impressed with how quickly Webb has taken over her role in the middle, heaping praise on the tactical skills of Ayton up front. "I see us as one of the top three crews in the world, but we weren't nailing the results," Roberston says. "The differences can be very small, but so significant when it comes to the points at the end of a regatta."

The to-do list is shrinking, next month's world championship in Santander is more about psychological positioning than silverware and Robertson is able to feel relaxed both about herself and her crew's excitement about their first Olympics. Their medal run looks perfectly timed.

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