Golden visions out of the blue

ATLANTA: Four Olympians little known beyond their sports hope to gain recognition by getting their hands on precious medals; Ben Ainslie (laser yachtsman)
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The Independent Online
Ben Ainslie has already broken an Olympic record without having tacked in anger. At 19 he is the youngest sailor ever to be selected for the British Olympic squad, and the team coaches reckon him a gilt-edged prospect not just for a medal but for gold.

Originally, Ainslie had his sights trained on the 2000 Games in Sydney, but his rapid progress and the selection of the Laser class as an Olympic discipline have accelerated his arrival. Of the 10 Olympic sailing events, the Laser most demands raw sailing skill.

Where others develop complex carbon fibre masts and test revolutionary sails in an effort to develop an edge in speed over their rivals, the Laser class pits sailor against sailor: identical boats are supplied to competitors days before the first of the 11 races. "Being young I haven't got that much experience on the technical side, so when the Laser was selected I thought, 'That's great, I'll have a go,' " he said.

Ainslie quickly found that he was at the top of the UK Laser ratings. "I won the ladder in 1995 and suddenly realised I could have a go this time." His run of good form culminated in a win at the British Olympic trials last August, a regatta that brought more than 50 Laser sailors to the starting line and which confirmed to slightly sceptical selectors that this quiet, shy and diffident youth was a capable, mature and aggressive man when it mattered.

With the tiller of a Laser in his hand, Ainslie develops the killer instinct that is vital in sport. He went into the final race of the trials ahead of the competition, but not comfortably so. He needed his main rival, Hugh Styles, to have a bad result so sought him out from the start of the race and got in his way. Ainslie sailed in front of Styles and went as slowly as possible. They completed 100 tacks where just a dozen would be normal and went round the first mark at the tail of the fleet. Ainslie's Olympic place was safe.

Ainslie is now in Savannah living not in team accommodation but with his parents away from the razzmatazz. Rod and Sue Ainslie have supported their son from the minute they realised he was serious about sailing, selling their home in Cornwall to travel the circuit with him and living wherever that circuit took them. Rod Ainslie was a racing sailor in his own right, skippering the 71ft Second Life in the first Whitbread Round the World Race 23 years ago. Ben has inherited that love of sailing, that innate feel for the boat. Indeed, he sails from the heart without reference even to such a basic technical aid as a compass to detect wind patterns and determine strategy. "I used to have one on my Optimist [a junior racing class] but I found that it took my attention away from other things. I seem to be able to manage without and anyway it saves me 2kg of weight."

The more technical sailors will argue that Ainslie's technique could leave him vulnerable; he prefers to let the results speak for themselves. He finished third in the Laser world championship earlier in the year and won the European championship just a month ago. Nevertheless, he is realistic about the pressure the Games will bring. "There are 15 guys there with a chance of winning and most of my competitors have seen a lot before. But I've got good speed in all conditions and I must be in the right area for a medal."

His immediate competition is the German Stefan Warkalla, whom he beat at both the world championships and the Europeans and the Brazilian Robert Scheidt. "In a world championship you'd be happy to get into the top 10 but I don't quite know how to gauge the Olympics. As long as I feel I've sailed well and not made too many silly errors then I wouldn't be too unhappy if I didn't get a medal."

In that sentence he lifts from himself the pressure of expectation that might have impaired his ability to perform at his best when he has to sail for real. He knows that, if luck is on his side, he could win a medal, and there are many who believe it might be gold. And if he doesn't, he has always got Sydney in 2000 to plan for.