Sailing: Blonde ambition turns to gold

In the 470 dinghy Bassadone hopes to conquer Qingdao's adverse conditions and make up for immense disappointment at Athens
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There are, it is said, three absolutely useless things on a racing yacht. They are an umbrella, a wheelbarrow and a naval officer. But say that last very quietly if you are anywhere near Lieutenant Commander Penny Clark, a graduate engineer who, after her Olympic Games medal-hunting on the singlehanded Laser, returns to the day job on a destroyer bossing a team of about 50 men and women wielding spanners.

Nor should it be forgotten that Britain's foremost Olympic yachtsman, Rodney Pattison – until Ben Ainslie overtakes him – was Royal Navy, as was a top Olympic sailing coach, David Howlett. Nor is it mere political correctness that should warn people away from making jokey remarks about blondes. Three of them, the Sarahs Ayton and Webb, defending gold medallists, plus Pippa Wilson, are the trio to beat in the Yngling keelboat, Clark and the windsurfer Bryony Shaw are fair of hair, and both British participants in the women's 470 dinghy, Christina Bassadone and Saskia Clark, are strikingly blonde.

Brunettes and redheads, it would appear, need not apply for a place in a British onslaught which is seeking to bag at least four medals on the entirely unsuitable racing waters of Qingdao, hoping to equal the five they have claimed at both of the previous two Games, in Sydney and Athens, and quietlydreaming of even more.

Bassadone was born in Birdham Pool on the South Coast and had sailing running through her veins almost before she could walk. Penny Clark comes from just outside Wolverhampton and was soon being driven to little clubs on small lakes and slightly larger reservoirs by a father who was equally determined to give his daughter every chance to sail.

Bassadone went to Southampton University to graduate from the business school, Clark went straight from school to the same university as part of the Royal Navy's graduate plan.

The 26-year old Bassadone, who plans to take a year out in 2008-09 to recover from seven years of Olympic campaigning, wants to win this year and in 2012 on what arethe almost home waters of Weymouth.

For the 33-year-old Clark, this is the big chance. Her Navy helicopter pilot husband, Russ, has also been part of her coaching team, and her service bosses have been ever-supportive. "I've been very lucky that it's all falleninto place at the right time in my career," she says. "I have been in for 15 years already and I expect to be in it until I am 50."

What both agree about is that there is a special feel to Skandia Team GBR – the insurance company are in their swansong year at Cowes, which starts next weekend – that there is a common ambition, sense of purpose and mutual support.

"We are standing on the world stage with undoubtedly the best- ever sailing team going out there," says Clark, who also believes that the discipline which is so much a part of service life has enhanced the inevitable need for personal focus which is part of any elite sport.

For Bassadone, there has been a long process of self-assessment after her first appearance on the Olympic stage in 2004. "I was very driven, very passionate about what I did, perhaps even a little too uptight, and I don't want ever again to feel like I did after Athens," she said. "I put my life and soul into it and felt a complete failure."

So she took a few months to reflect, found a new crew in Saskia Clark and started again. Clark is the laid-back foil to Bassadone's obsession – "My side of the bedroom is always tidy with everything in its place, while Sas's looks like a bomb has exploded" – and also took a look at campaign preparation.

Skandia Team GBR are highlystructured in terms of funding, organisation, training, technical research and support. Bassadone and Clark came round to the concept of having just one coach, who might direct rather than guide, when the 470 silver medallist Morgan Reeser took over the job.

Reeser persuaded them to question ideas about equipment and sails, even the builder of their boat, and what had been a tight team of two allowed a third member to join.

There were highs along the way, especially in the results at top international regattas, and lows, such as disappointing performance in light winds and some injuries. Saskia Clark has twice had to recover from back injuries which needed patient treatment, while Bassadone managed to hurl herself across a road in a bike accident, putting her out of action at the start of a weight-loss and training programme.

"I think I cracked my helmet in three places, I was left with war wounds and some great scars and even had to spend 24 hours in a wheelchair, though I was using it as a Zimmer frame by the end," she recalls.

Bassadone has now lost six kilograms, because Qingdao is expected to have very light winds, and she says: "Training has been going better and better,I have a lot of confidence and the ducks are in a row.

"We are as well prepared as we could possibly be and we will do our best to win a medal, preferably gold. But don't forget, these are the Olympic Games, and they are called games for a reason."