Wind surfing: First there was romance in the air, now rivalry puts wind up Dempsey

Click to follow
The Independent Online

As if Chrissie and Greg were not enough to have the non-sporting media abuzz, we had better prepare for a surfeit of Nick and Sarah and Love Boat headlines.

What is it about these rel-ationships between sporting greats, and one partner's ability to galvanise the other? Olympic sailors Nick Dempsey and Sarah Ayton, one third of the "Three Blondes in a Boat" at Athens and a member of the revised trio bound for Beijing, may not quite have acquired the golden status of the three-time Wimbledon champion and her newly wed husband, whose 53-year-old fingers so nearly grasped the Claret Jug. But it is only a matter of time before they become equally public property, should wind and fortune be in their favour at the Olympic sailing venue of Qingdao.

Although Dempsey once insisted that Ayton means "more to me than any Olympic medal" you sense that that love will have to become, albeit briefly, a bystander when there is an Olympic gold on the horizon. It will be raw competitive instincts, and just maybe a subconscious desire to outperform the other, that come to the fore.

Certainly they did in 2004. Dempsey, Britain's most successful windsurfer, who won a bronze on a Mistral board at the 2004 Olympics and will contest the RS:X class which has replaced it this time, recalls his gamut of emotions at the Athens Games.

"It all started off pretty badly for me, and halfway through I was about sixth or seventh. Sarah had pretty much won her gold medal [in the Yngling class, with Shirley Robertson and Sarah Webb]. I just thought, 'I can't go home without a medal, not when she's got a gold'. Not after I'd won everything in the build-up and she hadn't won a thing!

"Right, I thought. I pulled my socks up, and won three of my last five races. I was happy to get on the podium. But it should have been better."

The pair met in competitive surroundings – at the 1998 Youth World Championships, at which Dempsey claimed a silver in the Mistral. Although he swiftly became Ayton's beau on a board he stresses that their attitudes to the sport are entirely different.

"I can switch off from it. Sarah can't. It totally dominates every aspect of her mind. She cannot turn off. It's what she does. It's who she is. Her campaign is everything to her. That's a little bit difficult sometimes."

Is Dempsey a calming influence on the woman he is due to marry after these Games? "Yes, I think so," he concurs. "But it's good to have each other for support, and understand the problems the other may be having."

Dempsey's CV boasts an impressive array of golds. There is a feeling that the Norwich-born sailor is reaching peak form, and that the change in classification will benefit him. "The sail is a lot bigger, so we can go a lot faster. That means it's more physical. You have to be that much stronger and more powerful and be more aerobically fit." His target is a podium finish, at least.

"I love this sport because it's just down to me. There's no one else to blame. It's you against the elements. Experience is a massive factor. When I was 19 and went to the Sydney Olympics, I thought I was going to get a medal. I was fast, the board was really shifting. I absolutely loved it there. But when it came to the Games themselves, I was too young. I wasn't ready to win. I didn't know how to win at an Olympic Games and it all got a bit much. I started off with a false start. Once that happens, you're chasing things. I finished 16th. But the experience I gained there was really invaluable."

In the women's competition, Bryony Shaw, 25, is also primed for a podium place, despite this being her first Olympics. But she did win gold at last year's Olympic test event at Qingdao. "It's a unique venue, with very light winds, and it's very important to have performed at the venue," she says. "It definitely gives me confidence that I can go back there and win. I plan to be fitter, lighter and even better prepared than last year." A steady relationship has done no harm to her prospects either. "My boyfriend Greg's a windsurfer, though not a professional. He understands the sport and is very supportive."

Both Dempsey and Shaw concede that windsurfing's image as a hobby for bronzed young things with sun-streaked locks, and the inevitable partying, means that it suffers slightly in comparison with the dinghy and multihull sailors of this world, and that they are more likely to be descendants of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys than Lord Nelson. But Shaw says: "Although it's got a 'cooler' image than other sailing disciplines, a bit of a beach bum image, once people talk to you they realise that you're training as hard as an Olympic rower would. You're actually a dedicated sports person."

Can it be a gold double for Britain's surfers? The answer, as the great man Bob Dylan sang, is blowing in the wind. Or, in Qingdao, the probable lack of it.