Three women in a boat (or, How British sailing trio ended gold-medal drought)

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The Independent Online

After five days and a series of false hopes that had started quiet murmurings of discontent about the returns from Lottery-funded Olympians, Britain finally claimed its first gold medal in Athens yesterday.

After five days and a series of false hopes that had started quiet murmurings of discontent about the returns from Lottery-funded Olympians, Britain finally claimed its first gold medal in Athens yesterday.

The sailing partnership of Shirley Robertson, Sarah Webb and Sarah Ayton held their nerve in difficult conditions to gain an unassailable lead in the Yngling class - a category new to the Olympics.

After finishing third and eighth in their two races yesterday the trio - considered as favourites before the Games - can no longer be caught by the second-placed Danes and are not even required to race today before they climb on the winners podium tomorrow. They celebrated their win by linking arms and diving from their boat into the Saronic Gulf, presenting an image that would have sent ripples of relief through the Team GB camp.

Their victory came shortly before hopes of a gold in the mixed badminton were dashed when Nathan Robertson and Gail Emms were narrowly beaten by the Chinese pair.

At the weekend British hopes will be high of adding two further sailing golds, courtesy of Ben Ainslie in the Finn class and the 470 dinghy pair of Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield. With similar optimism surrounding the rowers, renditions of "Britannia Rules the Waves" resounding around the athletes' village looks increasingly likely.

A rich source of medals at Sydney, preparation of the sailing team this time has been second to none, extending to a meteorologist advising the team, who have already turned to the challenges of Beijing in 2008.

By adding to the gold she won in the Europe class in Sydney, Shirley Robertson, 36, from Dundee, has become the most successful British woman sailor, vindicating her decision to return for her fourth Games.

"It's been hard all week and we have taken each race as it goes along and not made errors. Winning a day early certainly takes the pressure off a little bit," Robertson said.

The graduate of Herriott Watt University, who was made an MBE after Sydney and declared the ISAF World Sailor of the Year, said in the high spirits after yesterday's win that she fancies her chances of a third gold in Beijing.

In contrast to Robertson, who took 12 years of Olympic competition to achieve gold, her two crew members have had their first taste of Olympic competition at Athens. Ayton, a 24-year-old from Weymouth in Dorset who is entrusted with race tactics, was Robertson's training partner in Sydney.

Webb, 27, from Weybridge, Surrey, 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 unbelievable. The legs are like jelly and all over the place. It's been hard work but worth it" said Ayton, also known as Nipper. "The conditions haven't been the strongest for us and we've really had to raise our game."

The Yngling, a name invented when its creator Jan Linge wanted to develop a larger boat, is said to be the equivalent of moving from a go-kart to racing Formula One. It was introduced shortly after the Sydney games and has given sailors of the much smaller Europe class problems to such an extent that they find it a different sport. Because of its size even the tiniest rudder adjustment can result in a drastic change of direction.

Members of the sailing club where Robertson began her career were yesterday drinking a champagne toast to her. Brian Morris, a founding member of the Loch Ard Sailing Club, near Aberfolye, central Scotland, said he was thrilled at her latest triumph.

He said: "It is a tremendous achievement. Shirley started sailing on Loch Ard and I have a picture of her standing beside a Mirror dinghy with her father when she was about five years old. We have been watching her progress since then. She is a delightful young lady and a very capable sailor."

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