His earnest, youthful demeanour may be suggestive more of Tom the Cabin Boy than Cut Throat Jake – the latter a rather more appropriate epithet, given Ben Ainslie's single-mindedness – but looks can be deceptive. Though it scarcely seems plausible, Britain's greatest sailing Olympian is about to start serious preparation for his fifth Olympic Games.
The man frequently likened to Superman by some in the media already boasts three Olympic golds and a silver. A fourth in the Finn class at the London Games would hoist him alongside such sporting knights of the realm as Matthew Pinsent and Chris Hoy, one behind Steve Redgrave.
The 2012 Olympic sailing regatta begins at Weymouth in just over two years' time. And though the 33-year-old begins the build-up for that in earnest after a two-year hiatus, starting with the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta on the course which begins on 9 August, he revealed to The Independent on Sunday that there is no certainty he will be in a position to contest London 2012.
Not only does he first have to qualify ahead of some quality British rivals, including his old adversary Ed Wright – and Giles Scott, the 23-year-old former world junior champion in the Finn class – but Ainslie could also be confronted by the dilemma that no elite sailor should have to contemplate. Should he opt to be captain of his own destiny and prioritise Olympic gold, or concentrate on bringing home – as skipper of Team Origin – the America's Cup, the pinnacle of big-boat, 17-man racing, which Britain surrendered to the Americans in 1851 and has never claimed since?
Ideally, he will contest both. But that is dependent on the timing of the 34th America's Cup, a phenomenon of such political manoeuvring and involving such enormous egos that it can make the Coalition Government policy look like an exercise in clarity. Such details are essentially in the gift of the defending team, who are BMW Oracle. Within a complex format, the defending team possess a considerable advantage. It's as if, in football, Spain could now decide the location and timing of the next World Cup, and they would go straight into the final.
"It's something I think about every day, because I'm constantly juggling my Olympic ambitions alongside my America's Cup commitment," concedes Ainslie when we meet at his Lymington base where, on top of everything else, he is recovering from ankle ligament and wrist damage sustained in a fall during a fitness run in Sweden. "Whether or not the America's Cup will be in 2013 or 2014 will be quite a big decider for me in terms of being able to go for an Olympic gold. If it's 2013, it could be really hard. You'd be developing your Cup boat in 2012, and there'd be qualifying regattas in 2012 – at the same time as I would be training for, or taking part in, the Olympics. It's really a tough call if it's 2013."
However, Ainslie insists that, if necessary, he would sacrifice a potential Olympic gold. "If it became apparent that there was no way I could do both, I would have to do that," he says. "With the quality of team we have now, with the commitment of [team principal] Keith Mills, and Grant Simmer [the Australian-born navigator who is the new Team Origin CEO] coming in to run the team now... for me to jeopardise all that work would be very selfish. But I'll do everything to prepare for 2012, right up until the day that it's just not possible to do both."
The Weymouth regatta, a venue he hasn't sailed for seven years, will provide a valuable insight into the state of the opposition, both the British aspirants hoping to usurp his Olympic place and those of other nations. "It's going to be hard for me," says Ainslie. "If I make it into the medal race [the final cut of 10 boats] I'll have done well. Nobody will expect me to go out there and win, considering this is the biggest gap I've ever had since last sailing an Olympic boat."
The real examination will come next year, however, when he has to reach a certain standard at the pre-Olympic regatta and World Championships in Perth, Australia. Though his past record is also taken into account, he cannot afford to make any assumptions regarding qualification.
Before then, in an already hectic year, his mind will also be attuned to next month's 1851 Cup at Cowes, when the Ainslie-skippered Team Origin boat will race against BMW Oracle in what's best described as a preliminary skirmish ahead of the America's Cup. "We've got a seriously strong team now," he says of the Team Origin campaign. "We do have everything we need to go out and be successful, whether it's 2013 or 2014." He pauses. "Look at it this way. There's no way I'd even think about jeopardising my Olympic preparation, or campaign, if I didn't think we had a chance of going out and winning the Cup."
Ainslie has never been a man who enjoys merely taking part. Victory is his sole concern, and what has always driven him. He nods his agreement. "There's zero interest otherwise."
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