Sublime Robertson leads golden girls to Britain's first triumph

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The Independent Online

When she stepped ashore yesterday, Shirley Robertson could still not quite believe it. The 36-year-old from Dundee had just become the most successful woman sailor in Olympic history by winning gold in the Yngling class along with her crew of Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton.

When she stepped ashore yesterday, Shirley Robertson could still not quite believe it. The 36-year-old from Dundee had just become the most successful woman sailor in Olympic history by winning gold in the Yngling class along with her crew of Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton.

Eighth position in their penultimate race - with, crucially, their closest rivals failing by one place to finish the required four boats ahead of them - meant the Britons had won by a single point, with a whole day to spare, and would not even have to compete in tomorrow's final race.

"We weren't certain at the end whether we'd won the gold or not," Robertson said. "We asked Ian Walker, our coach, and he confirmed it. But I'm dying to see it on paper. I still want to see the evidence that we've won."

Although they had still not got their hands on that final, definitive proof, the three women celebrated in traditional style. Linking arms on the deck of their boat, they jumped joyously overboard into the warm waters of the Aegean, which has become such familiar territory to them in the last three years.

Britain's meticulous sailing preparations for these Olympics, which began immediately after their triumphant three golds and two silvers in Sydney, have meant that their crews have been the best prepared of any competing here this month in the Saronic Gulf.

Robertson's gold, moreover, is only the beginning of the British medal flow. Ben Ainslie strengthened his own claim on a second successive gold medal in a different class with another masterly performance on the Finn single-hander course yesterday - he needs to finish only 15th out of 25 to secure victory in tomorrow's final race.

The 470 dinghy pair of Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield, like Ainslie, are certain of at least a silver medal. They must, however, put at least three boats between themselves and the American pair, Paul Foerster and Kevin Burnham, to take gold in tomorrow's final race.

Meanwhile Paul Goodison lies fifth in the Lasers, Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks are fifth in the 49ers, and Iain Percy - another gold medallist from Sydney - and Steve Mitchell begin their Star campaign tomorrow, as do two more medal hopes, Leigh McMillan and Mark Bulkeley, in the Tornado catamaran.

Yesterday, however, all eyes were on the British women. While Robertson had already experienced Olympic glory, 24-year-old Ayton, from Weymouth in Dorset, and 27-year-old Webb, from Weybridge in Surrey, were savouring success on their first appearance on this stage.

"We've worked so hard in the three years we've been together and this feels very sweet," Robertson said.

"We're a four-person team, with our coach, Ian Walker, because we would not have achieved this without him. It's not been easy.

"We've been up and down. We've really had to pull through. And to win with a day to spare is unbelievable."

Ayton paid tribute to "the whole sailing community" for their support, and in particular the 36 individuals who put up £1,000 each to buy their boat and enable them to compete.

"I'm so pleased to be able to show our medals to the people who helped us," she said.

A Spanish yachtswoman, Theresa Zabell, won two golds in the 470 class in Barcelona and Atlanta, but Robertson, who triumphed in the single-handed Europe class in Sydney four years ago, is the first woman sailor ever to win golds in two different boats.

Stephen Park, Britain's Olympic sailing manager, put Robertson's achievement in perspective.

"For any sailor to win medals in two different classes is an incredible performance," he said. "To win two gold medals in two different classes is almost unheard of. To be a female and to win two gold medals is an astonishing achievement."

Ninth in Barcelona 12 years ago and fourth in Atlanta, Robertson has been a model of dedication and commitment to her sport.

Her crew have spent countless hours on the water here in training for this week and Robertson has been utterly meticulous in her preparation of the boat.

The Britons triumphed thanks to their extraordinary consistency. Each crew can discard their worst result, but until yesterday Robertson and the two Sarahs had never finished outside the top six in the fleet of 16 boats.

Third place in the first race yesterday strengthened their position and meant they would secure the gold if they finished no more than three places behind their closest rivals, Dorte Jensen's Danish crew.

Robertson led the 10th and penultimate race of the series at the first mark, but had slipped to second by the end of the second leg and then saw the Danes overhaul them. Jensen, however, was unable to put more than three places between the two boats and the Britons took the gold, despite their worst finishing position in the regatta.

Yesterday's triumph meant that Robertson's husband, Jamie, missed her moment of glory. He was due to fly here tomorrow to see her final race. Would they sail anyway tomorrow? "No," said Robertson. "We're going to get our hair done."

Inevitably, Robertson was asked whether she would be back to compete in four years' time, chasing more Olympic history.

"My poor husband would like his wife back to cook him dinner," she said.

In an echo of a comment by the greatest Olympian of them all, Steve Redgrave, she added: "Anything's possible, but at the moment the last thing any of us want to do is get back in that boat. We'll see."