Robertson enters uncharted waters in quest to master a different class

Britain's first woman Olympic sailing champion will aim for gold in Athens in a new category.
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The Independent Online

It's a paradox - people who spend their lives on water always seem to have their feet on the ground. Thus when Shirley Robertson, Olympic gold medallist, settles down on the sofa alongside her husband, Jamie Boag, also a sailor, the conversation is, you might say, down-to-earth.

"We have this rule that we don't talk about sailing all that much," Robertson says, a puckish smile playing around her features beneath hair bleached blonde by hours on the seas. "We call it 'rudder tiller bollocks'." There. Stick that in your notebook and print it.

As the 36-year-old Dundee lass appraises the effect of her phrase, the two young women with whom she will be seeking a second gold medal in Athens next month, Sarah Ayton (otherwise known as Nipper) and Sarah Webb, register appalled delight.

Robertson is almost dismissive about her achievement at the last Games, where she won the Europe dinghy class after 12 long years of striving. Ninth in Barcelona, fourth, excruciatingly, in Atlanta, she struck her triumphant chord in front of the Opera House to become Britain's first female Olympic sailing champion.

Her first sensation, she maintains, was merely enormous relief: "I think most sports people would say that. It just means you haven't messed up."

As for the historical significance of her win, well, that was not an active consideration. "Generally, I tried not to think about the outcome," she says. "I just needed to focus on each race and each part of the race, and not really get wound up."

Her emotions as she stepped out of the little boat she had inhabited for three Olympiads were not quite along the Steven Redgrave, "shoot-me-if-I-ever-get-back-in" lines. As things turned out, however, it was to be her last appearance as a Europe class competitor.

"Time passed, and I just didn't have any inclination to get back in there," she reflects.

So there it ended, and Robertson returned home to an MBE and a dizzying round of parties and official openings. Except, of course, there it didn't end. Because, like Redgrave, Robertson was drawn back to her sport with the inevitability of an apple dropping to earth.

Could she contemplate life without sailing?

"Yeah," she replies. "But I'd miss having that one goal you work towards. It's quite a privileged position to be in. It's not often in life you can have that - just to be focused on one thing, and everything you do on that day helps that goal.

"The decision to come back came during the following summer after Sydney. There was such a lot going on after winning the gold medal. A lot of parties... [chuckles]... there was a time when I'd be in London three nights a week. But you feel like you're not progressing towards anything - you're just going from day to day. But you want something real after a while."

And for Robertson, real means water, wind, sails, speed...

"I needed a new challenge, and it was in the November after the Sydney Games they introduced the Yngling class. I'd sailed small-keel boats quite a lot before so I'd had a taster. I thought if I was going to do it, that was the logical choice."

The Yngling - not an activity dreamed up by Spike Milligan, but a name derived from that of Jan Linge, who created the new class because the Soling boats were too large for his children to sail comfortably - entailed switching from a tiny craft weighing 45kg to a keelboat of 650kg. It was the equivalent of moving from go-kart racing to Formula One. And, like a driver, Robertson has grown attuned to the feel of her new vehicle.

"It's exactly like hearing an odd noise in your car," she said. "And the more you drive the car, the more sensitive you are. Although I'm a sensitive steerer, it's taken a while to really feel the Yngling in the rudder, because it's a big heavy boat. Whereas in the Europe you're in something where you feel absolutely everything, either through your bum or through the tiller.

"Quite often on the Yngling I can say 'it doesn't feel good! I think we're slow!' But we don't always know what to change. After so long in the Europe, it feels like a completely different sport. It's really, really precise sailing, partly because the boat's so heavy and so slow. Tiny adjustments, tiny movements, just give you that half a metre that you need. It's all about precision. You make one mistake and that's it - you're out the back door.

"If that happened in the dinghy classes you could just be a bit physical with the boat for a while. There were always opportunities for a comeback. Whereas in the Yngling it's all about planning."

The other new factor in Robertson's sporting life, you might have thought, was adjusting from being the mistress of her own destiny on the water to becoming one of a team. The new dynamic, however, is not such a contrast as it might seem.

"Even if you're single-handed, you're never self-reliant," Robertson says. "There's an army of people who contributed towards that gold medal. I was working very closely with my coach at the time, Mark Littlejohn. It never felt like I was working independently, I was always part of a team. And we are now a team of four, which includes Ian Walker, our coach.'' She accepts that mistakes can feel more costly when they reverberate directly upon those alongside her, but puts the kind of positive spin on it that you sense comes from long practice.

"In a team the stakes are higher," she says. "But I think also success is sweeter when you share it with other people."

For the other people in this case, Athens will be their first experience of the Olympics, although Ayton, a 24-year-old from Weymouth who is entrusted with race tactics, was Robertson's tuning partner in Sydney. Webb, who just missed out in the last Olympic trials sailing in the 470 class, joined the others two years ago after an original crew member, Inga Leask, had to drop out.

"It's been a huge learning curve for all three of us," Robertson admits. "Because it's a new class, the Yngling has been very trial and error. We're learning from first principles, and it's the same for everyone.

"If you look at the Finn class there's three of them who share the prizes. We won the Olympic test event in Athens last year, but we were 16th in this year's World Championships. We never seem to reach a plateau where we are happy with our performance.

"In established Olympic classes you walk into history. You get people saying, 'Don't try that, we tried that in 1979 and it didn't work'. We don't have any of that. We go to events and we're slow and we're like 'OK, we'll tick that off. We won't do that again'."

Unsurprisingly in such an atmosphere of unstable relativity, there is an instinct to check the initiatives of rival boats. Yes. As the conspiratorial giggles indicate, we're talking spying.

"If someone goes out and gets two firsts, then, yeah, we're looking to see how they're set up," Robertson says. "There's a lot of that going on. Of course, everyone has a coach. And the coaches are always snooping around..."

For all the uncertainties, however, the forthcoming challenge in Athens is coming into sharp focus. Asked what she feels the British prospects are, Robertson responds, cannily: "Other people would perceive us as one of the favourites. We feel quite good on the Olympic course. Nipper and I have been to the last two races in Athens - two years ago we were third, and last year we won. It was a struggle, yet we still medalled. I think that illustrates that we feel quite comfortable at a very difficult venue.

"There are not many rules in Athens. Normally you are thinking in typically British fashion, if the wind's here you have to do this... But the geography there is quite complicated. The land is quite high, and it's very warm. It's almost like sailing on a lake. You're surrounded by islands, and it's hard to see signs. Normally, we're always looking for signs in the clouds, or on the water, or on the land.

"In a normal coastal venue, if you see big fluffy white cumulus clouds building up on the land, you know that a thermal wind will start to develop. Or if there's black clouds, you know the wind will probably come out of that. We can see the wind on the water too.

"But out in Athens it's hard to judge. You have big gusts of wind that just land. Mentally, things can get difficult.

"We will go round the first mark last in some of the races. It will happen. It's just how you deal with that. Whether you think, 'Oh God, it's all over, I'll never win an Olympic medal. I'm hopeless, I'm terrible,' or whether you say, 'Well, OK, let's try and pick a few places off here and then make a counter'."

No prizes for guessing which option the British crew is likely to take. The "rudder tiller bollocks" needs careful attention, to be sure. But Olympic success, as Robertson well knows, comes down to something even more basic.