British sailors lay foundations for 2012 fortress

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The Independent Online

Two years before Britain's Olympic sailing squad bagged six medals in China last year, the Project 2012 team held its first council of war at the south coast headquarters of the Royal Yachting Association. In the south of France this week, Britain's formidable team of maritime musketeers, falling over each other to throw down gauntlets, gathered to begin a three-year journey that aims to turn Weymouth, better known for kiss me quick hats and donkey rides round sculptures in the sands, into a sporting fortress.

The first big debrief could not even wait until the plane bringing the athletes back from Qingdao had landed in England. It was held at 36,000 feet and was followed up at ground level, East Horton Golf Club near Southampton, last November.

Since then, two of the gold medal-winning three blondes in a boat, the Sarahs Ayton and Webb, have been married, Sarah Ayton, now Dempsey, also embracing family life. She should give birth in two months.

But many have just taken a break and then thrown themselves back into the fray. This is no longer a Corinthian game. The effervescent Bryony Shaw, winner of a bronze in the windsurfer class sporting a Blue Peter badge, took five months off, no daily visit to the gym, no earnest conversations with her coach Dom Tidey, "It was guilt-free because of the relief of winning the medal," she says. "It was a reward. Then I started getting twitchy in January, even though I had been told not to come back until March. So I went to a training camp in Brazil."

UK Olympic manager Stephen Park talks to Stuart Alexander





Shaw's parents live near the Olympic venue, transformed from the former naval base in Portland harbour, and she will be training there in May, June and August ahead of the world championship in September. It will be one of the UK's first new Olympic venues to host a full-blown test event, also in September.

The Dempsey's are also locals, Laser gold medallist Paul Goodison lives there with partner Saskia Clark, who is back on the 470 dinghy campaign trail with new helmsman partner Penny Clark. Penny, an engineer running a department of engineers on a Royal Navy destroyer was in the singlehanded Laser last year. Her release for the two-handed dinghy campaign went all the way up for the approval of the second sea lord, Admiral Massey.

"We are definitely stating that Weymouth is our territory," says Shaw. "It's a home game in 2012. We want to show the world and our rivals that they can't touch you there."

Some, like triple gold and silver medallist Ben Ainslie, or the star keelboat gold medallists Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson, have yet to make their return. Some, like former world champions Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes, have put behind them the huge disappointment of missing out on the medals in China. "We don't feel we have to prove ourselves, we feel we have to improve ourselves," says Morrison.

The job of guiding all these talented missiles falls to Stephen Park, addressed by all as Sparky. This is a time of transition at the RYA as it s chief executive, Rod Carr, who dragged Olympic sailing into the well-funded structure of the modern era, departs in a year's time.

Funding for the next Games is secure. Lottery money is mightily enhanced by sponsorship. The Swedish financial services company Skandia may have bowed out of the Cowes Week scene after 14 years, but it is Skandia Team GBR, including the development squad, that populates boat parks around the world.

One of the things Park has brought to the squad is a heightened sense of team spirit, hard enough in ego-driven top level sport. "You can be pretty lonely if you stand aloof," he says. After winning his third gold, Ainslie was happy to turn up the next day and help others drag their launch trailers up the ramp. The same one-for-all approach is still evident on the Cote d'Azur.

In 2004 the RYA cautiously set a target of three medals and produced five. In 2008 four turned out to be six. The stated target for Weymouth is five. But the dream for 2012, which dare not be spoken formally in public, would be to win a medal in all 10 events.

Meanwhile, more legal wrangling could follow the abrupt end yesterday to talks in Geneva about the next America’s Cup between the defender, Switzerland’s Alinghi, and the current sole challenger, the San Francisco-based BMW Oracle.

As expected, the Swiss and the Societe Nautique de Geneve rejected out of hand proposals by the Americans which would have meant relinquishing control of the event. Both sides still claim they want a conventional multi-challenger event, the Swiss saying they accept the giant multihull challenge from BMW Oracle, headed by Larry Ellison, but hoping that other challengers would be able to join in. That is extremely unlikely given the cost and time-scale as the Americans rejected the May 2010 date, insisting that the recent rulings of the New York courts called for a match in February 2010.

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