The shining stars leading the golden generation

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The Independent Online

The sailors
Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson

Sarah Ayton will ever be known to millions of non-sailing fans as one third of Team GB's gold medal winning Three Blondes in a Boat. But for her, China will always have extra-special memories.

This summer's games will be the warm-up for another major event of an altogether more personal kind – her marriage in October to the British Olympic windsurfer Nick Dempsey.

After a nine-year engagement, the couple bought their wedding rings separately on their way to the Games. They have been keeping in touch on the internet. Contending with each other's determination to succeed looks likely to be the next big hurdle.

Dempsey, who narrowly missed out on adding to the bronze medal he won at Athens, has admitted his fiancée's gold in the same class in 2004 was an inspiration and a challenge. "I thought, 'I can't go home without a medal, not when she's got a gold'," he said.

According to Dempsey, his wife-to-be, who began sailing at the age of six, can struggle to relax. "I can switch off from it. Sarah can't. It dominates every aspect of her mind. She cannot turn off. It's what she does. It's who she is. Her campaign is everything to her. That's a little bit difficult sometimes," he said.

For Sarah Webb, success yesterday comes after a near-catastrophic accident that could have ruled her out of the Games entirely. With just six weeks to go until the start, she slipped and smashed her face into a metal towing post as she helped move the Yngling boat. A lump the size of a tennis ball developed on the 31-year-old's face.

For the youngest member of the crew, Pippa Wilson, 22, victory was tinged with sadness. Even before setting off for Beijing she dedicated the campaign to her grandfather Tom Wilson, who died in April aged 90. "He was a huge inspiration to me, more than he ever knew," she said.

The cyclist
Rebecca Romero

In 2005, having already won an Olympic silver medal in rowing and dogged by injury, Rebecca Romero toyed with the idea of a new way of life – something "exciting and challenging".

One option was using her diploma in marketing communications. The other was getting on her bike.

Accepting her second medal, this time gold, in the cycling pursuit yesterday, she made history as the first British woman to win medals in two Olympic sports. Romero is known as a tough competitor, but she was in tears as she realised the scale of her achievement.

Born in Surrey, Romero excelled at sport from the off and has been a full-time funded athlete since graduating from university with a degree in sports science.

She took up rowing after moving next to the Thames. She was tempted to join Twickenham Rowing Club but work on the bridge leading to it put her off. "I ended up going to Kingston Rowing Club to find out what the sport was about. Looking back I feel that it must have been fate for I didn't know at the time I was walking into one of the most successful women's rowing clubs with one of the best junior coaches in the country."

Romero, 28, only took up cycling after the sport's governing body approached her. She had never thought of herself as being particularly good on two wheels.

She successfully completed the testing procedure but only started her Olympic training two years ago, when the sport's bosses realised how gifted she was.

Those that watched her could not believe how much pain she was prepared to suffer to achieve her goal. One described it as "scary".

But incredibly, she considers herself lazy."I always think I'm not tough enough, not hard enough, not disciplined enough."

Her exploits on land and water will see her held up as a role model for future Team GB champions.

The rowers
Mark Hunter and Zac Purchase

Few sporting partnerships are as unlikely as that of Zac Purchase and Mark Hunter. And as the two hugged each other on the winning podium yesterday, having cruised to victory in the lightweight sculling event, hardly anyone outside the world of rowing could have guessed at their different paths to gold.

Hunter, like Steve Redgrave before him, is a man at odds with the elitist image of the discipline. Having grown up in London's East End, Hunter turned his back on the traditional sporting dream of those living within distant earshot of the Bow Bells – success on the pitch at Upton Park – preferring instead to turn to the Thames, where he spent seven years apprenticed as a waterman.

But rowing was to elevate Hunter to a different world – he would eventually replace James Cracknell as captain of the elite Leander club upstream at Henley.

It was here he met Zac Purchase, a public schoolboy more in tune with the boaters-and-blazers image of the sport but who developed a remarkable rapport with the older man.

Hunter and Purchase, who is in line to become Britain's latest sporting pin up, aresaid to never argue. When things get edgy, they sing, either something from Rocky or, if it's really bad, Village People.

The yachtsman
Ben Ainslie

For Ben Ainslie, Britain's most successful Olympic sailor, the voyage to the choppy waters of Qingdao began one frosty Christmas morning at the age of eight, when he awoke to find his first dinghy waiting for him on the lawn outside. Yesterday, he won his third consecutive Olympic gold medal.

Sailing is in the Ainslies' blood. His father, Roddy, was only a weekend yachtie when he entered the first Whitbread Round-the-World Race in 1973, finishing fourth. Roddy and his wife, Susan, moved their young family from Cheshire to the South-west, and the rest has gone down in nautical history. "It is a shame they were weren't here, but huge thanks to them," Ainslie said yesterday.

Off the water, Ainslie, 31, is courteous and polite. On it, it is an entirely different matter. The Brazilian Robert Scheidt learnt this the hard way.

After beating him in Atlanta, he was forced into an error by Ainslie which led to his disqualification in Sydney. In Sao Paulo, they burnt effigies of the Englishman.

Ainslie has no time for sportsmen who like to boast or those who consider themselves celebrities. "I'm not a footballer. I wouldn't take too kindly to people photographing me constantly, snooping through my dustbin. I'm a very private person," he said.

Perhaps one reason is his relationship with a German sailing PR executive. "She understands the issues I have and constraints I'm under. It's working well."

His success in Beijing now makes it almost certain he will want to sail in front of a home crowd at Weymouth in 2012. But before that there is the small matter of winning the America's Cup next year.

The Great British record

*Great Britain is unique in being the only country to win gold at every Summer Games since 1896.

*Barring Beijing, 660 medals in all – 185 of them gold – have been won by GB, making it the third most successful country, after the USA and USSR.

*GB topped the table in 1908 in London, with 55 golds, 46 silvers and 35 bronzes for 136 in all. It's the only time GB was the most successful country.

*The other top games for GB were: 1900, 34 medals, 10 gold; 1912, 41 medals, 10 gold; 1920, 41 medals, 14 gold.

*The biggest post-war GB haul was at LA in 1984 with 37, but with only five golds. Eleven came in 2000, out of 28 medals, the highest number of golds since 1920.

*The least successful games were: 1904, 1 gold, 1 silver; 1952, 1 gold, from 11 medals; 1996, 1 gold out of 15 in all.