Sailing: Shirley sees life beyond the ocean wave

Demands of baby twins keep double gold medallist's feet on the ground as she sets sail for Beijing
Click to follow
The Independent Online

It may not have occurred to Sir Clive Woodward, the British Olympic Association's new elite performance director, as a route to gold but the answer, it seems, may lie in bathing babies, watching EastEnders, and engaging some formidable granny power.

There seem to be two of everything in the life of Shirley Robertson at the moment. A brace of Olympic gold medals, two boats for her training camp just outside Palma de Mallorca and a pair of houses, one for her and the family, one for her two crew. Then there is a pair of silver Volvo 4x4s to tow the boats and cart the kit and a bright red double buggy to transport her six-month-old twins, Killian and Annabel.

There is only one husband, Jamie Boag, who joins the group as much as his business will allow to help look after the children while mum is training and even to deal with increasingly infrequent broken nights. If you have to be at the gym in the morning - not far to go, as the upper floor of the house has been converted to that plus an office corner space - and sail up to six hours a day, training with German, Russian and Italian teams, you need your sleep.

Especially as, much as Robertson is the skipper, her middle-of-the-boat crew, Annie Lush, is a bit keen on physical fitness. Both Lush and the 20-year-old Lucy Macgregor, who runs the front of the Yngling, the three-person keelboat Robertson campaigned to victory in Athens and will be racing again in Beijing, can also be dragooned into nappy-changing duties when they turn up for breakfast or an evening meal, and another episode of EastEnders.

There are also two grannies on hand, but it is Boag's mother, the redoubtable Phyl, who has moved from her Northern Ireland home to provide an all-round service which goes far beyond being an unpaid nanny. She is a core member of a team devoted to winning Robertson's third gold medal. Others who are called in to help, like coaches and technical advisers, need to win Phyl's approval.

We are not seeing a new Shirley Robertson at work, but an extended one. Whatever the reason, Shirley the mother is a happier, more relaxed competitor. Experience clearly helps. But not everything has changed. She still gives the impression that she thinks perfectionists lack ambition - "you never feel you have cracked it" - and she crunches every problem to bits, reconstructs it and then crunches it again.

In this she finds Lush a complementary force. A near-workaholic, Lush won, while graduating with a geography degree, a Blue in the Cambridge ladies' rowing eight and brings strength and intelligence to sailing while throwing herself into a forest of computer spreadsheets, checking all the worklists in Robertson's overall gameplan. In contrast Macgregor, 20 last November, is content soaking up knowledge every day.

Mallorca weather means the crew are able to sail nearly every day, catching up for what has been a relatively late start to the campaign. "Utopia will be when decisions evolve, we don't have to make them," says Robertson.

Robertson's new team - and that small-team bond is strong - first have to beat her old Athens crew of Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton who, with Pippa Wilson, are now running their own campaign. The crunch could come quickly after the world championships in Cascais, Portugal, in July and then a pre-Olympic event at Qingdao in August. The UK selectors could make their choice then, not least because early selection means concentrating all the resources on one boat instead of two.

For Robertson, non-selection would mean a change of direction, perhaps into politics. "I would like to be a member of the Scottish parliament," she says, adding that, although her mother once won the title of Miss SNP, she has yet to follow the same party allegiance.

For Macgregor, a career in sport is all she wants, while for Lush the political option has faded. "I went to Cambridge very left of centre, wanted to change the world," she says. "Changing the world is not that easy."