Saiing: Ainslie leading the new wave

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THERE HAS been something for everybody at Port Phillip Bay over the last 10 days, including a wide variety of weather conditions, some glorious triumphs, some bitter disappointments, and, for Britain, some satisfaction at solid progress.

A haul of two medals in the seven Olympic classes which held their world championships here was close to success for the British coach, John Derbyshire. He had hoped for three and, if he wanted to stretch things a little, the third place, behind Australia and Sweden, achieved by the whole squad in the national standings for the International Olympic Committee President's Cup could count as that.

There was also cause for some celebration at the Peter Symonds College in Winchester, where both Ben Ainslie, winner of a glorious gold in the Laser class, and Iain Percy, who came so close to bronze in the Finn, completed their A levels. And the singlehanders were responsible for a further boost to team morale as Shirley Robertson secured the bronze in the Europe.

"We have had some outstanding individual performances," Derbyshire said. "Considering it has been a 15-month grind for most of them, it is a credit to their hard work and to the effort of the support teams." But Derbyshire knows it will not become any easier in the remaining 20 months before the Olympics as standards are cranked up by rivals and the major countries spend more on winning.

While Ainslie was boosted by beating the 1996 Olympic gold medallist, Robert Scheidt of Brazil, for the fourth time in a major event since those Games, the rise and rise of Percy, formerly a rival to Ainslie in the Laser, is proving something special.

After completing an economics degree at Bristol, he has spent nine months concentrating on the Finn, moved from seventh in the world rankings last year to fourth last week, and taken a bronze in the European Championship along the way. "He is improving all the time," Derbyshire said.

Ainslie is 22 next month, while Percy has already reached that exalted age and the long-term prospects are glittering. And a 21-year old, Nick Rogers, with 20-year old crew Joe Glanfield, did enough in Melbourne to secure Britain's place at Sydney in the 470 two-handed dinghy. That is encouraging for those who hope for successors to the partnership of the 1996 silver medallists, John Merricks and Ian Walker, which came to a tragic end when Merricks was killed in a car crash just over 15 months ago. And it perhaps lends support to the contention of the International Sailing Federation president, Paul Henderson, that he sees Britain as the next major power in dinghy sailing.

If Derbyshire has a little cloud on his mind it is ensuring that Britain qualifies for all 11 medal disciplines in 2000. He thinks that, in the time remaining, that will be achieved and is simultaneously working on a six-year plan for Athens. But the three crews in the women's 470 managed only one single-figure finish between them in all 12 races of a world championship which was won for the fourth time in a row by the Ukrainian pair, Ruslana Taran and Olena Pakholchik. And much work remains to be done in the Tornado catamaran, which was not being contested in Melbourne.

To counter that, another youngster, Dominic Tidey, is showing considerable form on the windsurfer and all eyes this week will be on the Soling class.

Andy Beadsworth was fourth in Savannah in 1996, but since then crew changes have led to some inconsistency. Nor has Britain yet qualified for Sydney. He was eighth in the fleet racing world championship but that does not qualify him, and a good result is needed in the Infanta Christina soling world match racing championships this week. Russia, Ukraine, Italy, the United States and Spain have already qualified, so Beadsworth needs to do only moderately well in the 16-nation contest to take one of the four places available.