Sailing: Why Sarah is indebted to Athens - and in debt because of it

Olympic champions in our most successful sport, but Webb and her friends are still fighting for recognition.
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The Independent Online

There will be a new blonde in the boat for Beijing. With Shirley Robertson, the Scot who led Britain's triumphant trio to Olympic victory in Athens undecided about her sailing future, her two fellow gold medallists, Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton, have recruited another shipmate for their next Olympic quest.

The Weymouth-based Cambridge rowing blue Annie Lush, 24, will be unveiled as the new third member of the crew at next month's Boat Show. "With the Yngling class now confirmed again as one the events it means we can start our preparations in earnest," says the 27-year-old Webb. "We're definitely going for gold again."

As for Robertson, it is not a case of girl overboard. "Shirley's last few years must have been really hard for her, and I can understand that she is uncertain about her future," says Webb. "In this sport you are only home for about four days a month, and she hardly ever saw her husband.

"Obviously she will be a big loss, but as she cannot commit herself we have decided to go ahead with Annie, as both the other Sarah and myself want to compete again in the same class. It so happens Annie is also a blonde, but she's a pretty good sailor, too. She was an Olympic triallist before Athens and is well- known on the circuit. We think she is a bit of a coup."

The decision has ended weeks of doubt for Webb about her own future. Compared with Robertson, hugely fêted, particularly in her native Scotland, for her golden double - she also won in Sydney - the two Sarahs have been relatively unsung heroines. There have been the parades, the parties and the backslapping, of course, but these have not materialised into commercial deals or much-needed sponsorship. In fact, Webb is still paying off around £20,000-worth of debts incurred while getting shipshape for Athens.

"I'm not seeking sympathy - my financial problems are partly because I didn't manage them properly - and I don't want to sound like a drama queen," she says. "But at some point soon I'm going to have to be paying off more than the minimum payments or they'll be hounding me for the rest of my life and I'll be living at home, bailed out by my parents forever."

The team's budget for next year is around £120,000, some of which is funded by UK Sport and the Lottery. "But we still have to find most of it, and obviously we are looking for sponsors. It is very hard when you are in an event which, unlike a lot of the other Olympic sports, is not in the public eye much of the time. To be honest, after Athens, Sarah and I have hardly been offered anything, apart from the odd motivational speaking engagement, which surprises me. When you put on your Olympic tracksuit the whole world knows who you are, but in your own clothes nobody recognises you.

"You get 20 days of fame, then people forget. I can understand that, because sailing is not a particularly high-profile sport. We don't expect to get the same reaction as Kelly Holmes or Matthew Pinsent when we walk down the street, but it would be nice to have a little recognition."

She has been offered her old job back - she was formerly a buyer for BP - but wants to concentrate full-time on sailing. "After Athens I wasn't sure what I was going to do, but when it was announced the Yngling would be in Beijing I suddenly made up my mind, because I love the event."

Webb lives in Weybridge, Surrey, where the nearest thing to life on the ocean waves is a high-street pub called The Ship. She got into sailing as a six-year-old when her parents decided she needed a hobby, and took her to a local lake with a couple of young sailors who were her next-door neighbours.

She was racing competitively a year later and in the national junior squad at 10, sailing in a class aptly named the Optimist. She then moved into the 470 class, and became so involved that it curtailed her university education. But she failed to qualify for Sydney and ended up going to those Games as a spectator.

She admits that the public perception is of a "gin and tonic" sport, but says: "It is harder and more arduous than it looks. You are sailing 22 to 25 days a month, six to eight hours a day, plus doing gym work. For my role in the boat, I had to put on six kilos. I had to be the strongest, using most muscle. I guess you'd call me the powerhouse. I had the big spinnaker to play when we were downwind."

So was it all done with a diet of Mars Bars and doughnuts? "Oh no, it's all protein and carefully worked out. Actually, I found it really hard to put on weight, even though I was eating five meals a day with a thousand calories-worth of protein drinks."

However, she is relieved she will not have to do it all again, because the new team will see her in a different role. The other Sarah will be at the back of the boat, steering, and the muscle will be provided by the new girl, Lush. Webb has spent the last few weeks sailing off Weymouth with her and the 24-year-old Ayton. "It's been freezing, really horrible, but it has been like a new sport again, doing a new job in the same boat. The moment we hit the water it was brilliant."

Since Athens there have been many celebratory functions to attend and awards to be collected, though surprisingly none at the BBC Sports Personality night. "That was really disappointing. We were told we were going to be interviewed, but we weren't. We've been the most successful sport in the last two Olympics, but how do you raise the profile? I don't know. Sarah and I are thinking of doing some sort of video diary. In fact we would probably do almost anything - except Celebrity Come Dancing.

"A lot of people are very surprised that even as an Olympic champion you have to fund yourself, but that's the way it is, because it is a relatively expensive sport with all the travelling involved, transporting a boat and a car everywhere. You need all the right equipment, more than just a pair of trainers."

So has it all been worth it? "To be an Olympic champion? Of course it has, and even though it has put me in debt I'd do it all over again. In fact, I'll probably have to."