It was 16 years ago on the gentle waters of Wassaw Sound off the coast of Georgia that a teenage Ben Ainslie earned his first Olympic medal. In 10 days time on the rather more familiar and chillier waters of Weymouth Harbour, Ainslie will chase a fourth gold, an achievement that would install him as one of Britain's greatest Olympians.
Steve Redgrave has five golds, one more than his long-time partner Matthew Pinsent, Chris Hoy and the extraordinary Paulo Radmilovic, a Welsh water polo player and swimmer with Irish and Croatian roots who competed in five Games in the early part of the last century. It is a small, select group Ainslie is looking to join.
What marks out Redgrave, Pinsent and Ainslie is their longevity. Rowing and sailing are physically demanding sports – sailing is no spectator sport, but anybody fortunate enough to witness it at close quarters can vouch for the effort required across six days of racing. So to simply return, Games after Games is a feat in itself.
Cycling, rowing and sailing have been the bulk providers of British gold in recent Games, but in the latter two, each athlete can only compete in one event. For Ainslie, Redgrave, Pinsent and Co it is one medal per Games; age better not weary them. Ainslie's silver in Atlanta in '96 – he won gold in Sydney, Athens and Beijing – was a rare positive moment in what turned out to be a watershed for British Olympic sport. The rowing team, via Redgrave and Pinsent, collected the sole gold won by Team GB. It led to a rethink over how sport was run and funded and a year later the first monies from the lottery were channelled into Olympic sports. That input has had an immense impact, and has proved key in prolonging the career of the likes of Ainslie.
Rowing and sailing are two of the big five funded sports. Rowing receives the most, £27.3m, with sailing receiving £22.9m, and under the shrewd guidance of David Tanner and Stephen Park, the respective performance directors, it has been well spent. Both sports expect to finish on top of their medal tables. It is acknowledged, not least by Tanner, a man not given to exaggeration as befits a former headmaster, as the best team of rowers Britain has ever sent into a regatta. The sailors have hopes of winning a medal in every event. That would require an improbable turn of events, but, led by an Ainslie gold, it seems certain to be another success laden week on the water.
The two sports stand joint second in Britain's all-time list of Olympic gold winners, having each claimed 24 (some 25 behind athletics, its hefty advantage insured by historical achievement). Come the end of the Games, rowing should have eased ahead of its rival (there is real competition between the two sports and cycling to be Britain's No 1 in London).
Under Tanner, Britain have a plan around winning golds rather than a larger number of total medals. They have the talent. The pre-Games target of six is precise. By comparison most others are given a range – sailing is three to five – but Tanner's team is adamant they know exactly what they want.
Much of the funding has been spent on facilities, the rowers train together at a specially built facility at Caversham under the ever-watchful eye of Jürgen Gröbler, the man behind Pinsent and the coxless four's run of success. The German has been part of the British set up for over 20 years, and the continuity at the top that he and Tanner ensure has been the cornerstone of this golden run. The extra factor this Games promises is greater strength in depth than even the team that collected six medals, two of them gold, in Beijing.
Britain has not earned more than two golds at a Games since 1908, when a best-ever tally of four were won. At Eton Dorney, the Olympic venue built for £17m, Britain will send three crews on to the lake with an outstanding chance of gold and another three with a worthwhile chance. There would be no more popular winner across the entire Team GB than Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins. It will be a huge surprise if they are not to step on to that podium on 3 August. Grainger has three silvers to her name but every sign is that this time it will be gold. They are undefeated in their two years together. Helen Glover and Heather Stanning have the women's pair final two days before the scullers and could, therefore, record a first rowing gold for British women.
The men's four will – as per tradition – be expected to win gold or else, although the Australians will push them. Other male crews, the lightweight four and the monsters of the men's eight, will be in contention to be first across the line, while Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter may be short of form and have some questions over their fitness but they are big occasion performers.
The day after the last rowing medal is handed out on 4 August, the ceremonies begin down in Weymouth with Ainslie's Finn class one of the first to be determined. From Ainslie down, the British fleet is crewed by a core of experienced sailors. Paul Goodison is going for a second laser gold, Andrew Simpson and Ian Percy are defending their star class title, while windsurfers Bryony Shaw and Nick Dempsey have plenty of Games time in their lockers. Of the new crews Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark are the 470 world champions – their final comes four days after the laser, in which Clark's partner Goodison expects a lead role. The couple could have a pair of gold medals to hang in their Weymouth home.
To Park's fury – the Scot is the Alex Ferguson of the Olympic world with his suspicion of outsiders and fierce will to win – all nations have had equal access to the Olympic waters, but it will not stop the home sailors enjoying advantages. Park has spent part of the budget on building a British accommodation block next to the venue (the other teams are housed further afield), which has space for all the tools of the trade from meteorologists to physiotherapists. As with all Britain's major Olympic teams, no detail is too small but Park surely deserves the preparation prize. Keeping an eye on the accommodation is Felix the falcon, recruited to aid Britain's Olympic cause by scaring away seagulls that had been disturbing the sailors' sleep. What more could have been done to plot Ainslie's route to greatness?
Three rivals for Team GB to fear
Tom Slingsby (Aus)
The Australian is the big threat to Paul Goodison's hopes of earning gold in the laser. Going into the Games Goodison admits that Slingsby deserves to be favourite – the 26-year-old has won the last three world championships. But, as Goodison also points out, Slingsby went into Beijing as most people's fancy and failed to handle the pressure.
Robert Scheidt (Brazil)
The Brazilian, with two golds and two silvers, has long been a rival to Britain's fleet. He first won gold in Atlanta in 1996 ahead of Ben Ainslie but Ainslie had his revenge four years later. Scheidt now races in the Star class and where he will compete for gold against Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson.
Peter Taylor and Storm Uru (New Zealand)
Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase were the dominant rowers of 2008, winning every race through the season and the Games to claim gold. This time around it is Uru and Taylor who look the team to beat. The Kiwis finished seventh in Beijing but are superb form heading into the rowing.