Andrew Simpson was a big man. Over 6ft and more than 16st, he was a difficult man to miss and what the wealth of tributes paid amply demonstrated is that he will be much missed, not only by his family and the sport in which he shone but across Olympic sport and wider still – Rafa Nadal and Tottenham Hotspur, the club he supported, were among those mourning his passing, in a training accident when his catamaran capsized in San Francisco Bay.
There are two pictures that emerge: the man and the sportsman, and there was a notable crossover between the two. Last summer Simpson and Iain Percy, his long-time friend – they used to build Lego models together as children – and sailing partner in the Star class were relegated to the small print of Britain’s gold-laden Games. But the manner in which Simpson acknowledged his fate appears so typical of someone who found that rare balance between the competitive edge crucial to any sporting success and the acceptance that life goes on beyond the boat, the pitch or the court.
Simpson – known universally as Bart – and Percy were denied gold, a second in the Olympics, by the narrowest of margins. Silver offered little compensation to two winners. It hurt, but this was Simpson’s response not long after stepping back on to dry land: “Fair play to the Swedes,” he said of the winners. “We’re hurting so much inside right now but it means so much hearing how these guys are cheering. It’s going to be a highlight of my life.”
The next highlight of his sporting life was supposed to be the America’s Cup. Simpson, Percy and Ben Ainslie, another close friend, all had ambitions to succeed in sailing’s greatest event. Percy and Simpson turned childhood friendship into a fruitful sporting partnership in 2007 and won Olympic gold in Beijing in 2008. They flirted with the America’s Cup before deciding to go for another in London. “I love what I do,” Simpson told me one morning in the build-up to the London Games. He was sitting on, or rather filling, a sofa, in a yacht club in Palma, waiting for the Majorcan winds to get up enough puff to enable them to get out and race. He was studying a weather forecast and reams of other information on a touchpad and patiently tried to explain how it all worked to help them win races.
As we were talking, Ainslie rang Percy. “You only ring when you’re winning,” shouted Simpson down the line to the ultra-competitive Ainslie, followed by a deep laugh, one taken on by Percy and Ainslie.
The night before we had had dinner at a Palma restaurant, talking Spurs, life on the sporting road, London ambitions and, long-term, America’s Cup. He was relaxed, entertaining, open. The lasting impression was of a man who treated everyone equally. An Olympic gold medallist who still jumped merrily into the water to clean the bottom of his boat.
Back at the yacht club, as time ticked by and the wind refused to get up, Simpson and Percy swigged down coffee and orange juice, and pointed out their rivals around the lounge. Then they went round again, pointing out the crews they did and didn’t like, guffawing away as they said the French, in particular, were among the latter.
Percy said tonight: "Yesterday I lost my closest friend of over twenty five years, the friendliest and kindest man I have ever met. I cannot believe he is no longer with us.
Simpson was only 36. He leaves a wife, Leah, and a son, Freddie. Five years ago, at the moment of his greatest sporting triumph, he stood on the top step of the Olympic podium, a gold medal hanging around his neck and looked down at Percy. “Iain looked like he was going to cry,” recalled Simpson, “so I put my arm around his back and said, ‘Nice work, mate’.”