Brilliant young salt can follow in Ainslie's wake

Thompson loves Laser treatment and should win World Cup this week before single-handedly becoming GB's star of seas
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The Independent Online

Lymington, nestling on the south coast between Bournemouth and Southampton, is a yachtie heaven as well as a haven, a breeding ground for British sailing, the most consistently successful of all Olympic sports over the last decade. The myriad of yachts bobbing in the harbour and the 650-berth marina indicate a certain affluence, though one suspects many may be temporarily anchored until the recessional tempest abates.

But the real richness comes in the talent that has been nurtured in the challenging waters of the Solent, not least the nation's supreme sailor, Ben Ainslie, whose phenomenal achievements dominate the honours board of the Royal Lymington Yacht Club.

Lymington is also handy for Weymouth, where the Olympic regatta will be held off the Jurassic coastline in 2012. It is the first of the new Olympic venues to be completed, three and a half years ahead of schedule and within its £7 million budget. Sailors say its award-winning facilities are among the best in the world. No wonder the sport – under the progressive coaching policies of the Royal Yachting Association – is on the crest of a wave after producing 11 gold medals in the last three Games.

It is in Weymouth this week that another young salt from Lymington, firmly following in the wake of his idol Ainslie, is set to be confirmed as the next potential Olympic star of the seas. Nick Thompson, 23, looks certain to win the World Cup in his single-handed Laser. He is so far ahead in the series that he would probably have to sink to lose during the prestigious Skandia Going for Gold Regatta, which will be a test event for 2012.

Two weeks ago in Nova Scotia, he won the bronze in the World Championships – friend and GB team-mate Paul Goodison, 31, the current Olympic champion, took the gold. Thompson got into sailing through his father David, a keen sailor himself who built his own yacht. "The love of the sport I got from him but the competitive side is more myself. I think I was two the first time I went out on a boat and I was fortunate in having a local yacht club just down the road from where I live. I was about eight when I started racing and 12 when I went into single-handed." In 1999, he was the European junior champion in the Optimist class, a small single-handed craft – "it looks a bit like a bath-tub but is probably the most competitive class in the world for youngsters" – and was Young Sailor of the Year. He won the European Championships in the Laser Radial in 2001 and, three years later, the youth World Championships which earned him his place in the Olympic Development Squad.

"You can argue that the Laser is probably the toughest class in the world, a one-design boat which means it pretty much comes down to raw talent. When you look at the people who have come through like Ben, Paul and Ian Percy, they are all bloody good sailors who are now dominating the sport. It is also a very physical boat so the training you have to do off the water is just immense. You've got to be really fit. I probably do three weight sessions a week and four two-hour bike rides so it's a pretty high workload off the water.

"I also do a bit of boxing – quite a lot of sparring in fact, especially when I'm training in Florida, where I'm based during the winter because of the weather – and it's cheaper to live there. Also I'm lucky to be with Skandia GBR, the best sailing team in the world, because we have such a ridiculous amount of talent in this country."

Thompson, a graduate of Exeter University with a 2-1 degree in sports science, now races full time. There is a misconception that it is a sport for toffs, and that most yachties are yuppies. Because of this it remains in the shadows of public and political recognition as Ainslie, who won his first gold in the Laser class in Sydney, pointedly highlights in his new book.

"A lot of people see sailing as a rich man's sport. They think it's not for everyone but that's wrong – now more than ever," argues Thompson. "It's very easy to get involved in sailing. This yacht club [Royal Lymington], like many others, has one day a week when anyone can come along and try their hand at sailing and we've had a junior scheme running for 25 years.

"It's not as elitist as people imagine. If you go through our squad, most of the guys don't come from wealthy backgrounds, they have just worked hard to get where they are. I just hope people start to realise what sailing has to offer. You don't have to own your own boat. There are facilities where you can come down and use the equipment. Once you get to a certain level, everything becomes easier with sponsorship, grants and Lottery funding.

"I love this sport because everything is so natural. You are using the wind, the elements to drive yourself round; there's no other like it where there are so many factors that play into your performance. In athletics you get on the track and you know what you've got to do: run fast to win. With sailing it can be a force four and suddenly the wind drops and picks up again, a real challenge."

His ambition? To win gold in 2012 and eventually become as accomplished as Ainslie. "There seems nothing he can't do at the moment. He's the best at everything – match racing, the Olympics, whatever. He has always been there for me, really helpful throughout my career, showing me what is achievable if you work hard."

Message from an icon: Ben Ainslie

"Sailing is a very complex sport. You have to be very level-headed and from the time I've spent with Nick I know he is quite realistic, has a good head on his shoulders and is always prepared to put in the hard work. He's a nice guy too and hopefully he will go all the way. I've known him a long time, having grown up in Lymington. I have followed his career from the beginning and was very impressed when he won the Optimist European Championship, having been an Optimist sailor myself.

"I could see then that he was very talented. I've seen him emerge through the ranks to the Olympic Laser class, doing extremely well at every level with his performances and results. He's certain to be one of the guys to watch for 2012. It helps that he is very fit, but really sailing is about having the right mental game, being able to deal with the pressures and a lot of setbacks, particularly with the weather, which can be very frustrating. But he has the attitude to cope with that.

"In a way he is a young man who is typical of those who are making the sport so buoyant, having come up through the juniors showing great persistence, grit and determination. The Laser probably has the greatest strength in depth in terms of numbers and like all Olympic classes at the top level the competition is extremely tough. It will be a tremendous boost for him to clinch the World Cup this week because in the run-up to 2012 he has some pretty good home-grown opposition in Paul Goodison.

"He is getting pretty close and it will be fascinating to see if he can take the No 1 slot off Paul over the next couple of years and make a name for himself. Like me, Nick finds it a bit frustrating that sailing doesn't get the high profile it deserves in TV exposure or from politicians. No one seems to understand it or appreciate how tough a sport it is, which is why I wanted to do the book, to help people realise just why we have been the top-performing nation in the last three Olympics."

Ben Ainslie is Britain's most successful Olympic sailor, winning his third consecutive gold in Beijing. He has eight World and European titles and skippers TeamOrigin, Britain's America's Cup challenge

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