Sailing: Robertson's calm surface hides hard core: Outward appearances disguise determination to rule the Olympic waves in 1996. Stuart Alexander reports

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To look at Shirley Robertson you would not guess that she held the top ranking in a hard, physical outdoor game. Yet this soft-featured Scotswoman is No 1 in the world of Europe-class dinghy racing.

Up and down beaches and in and out of harbours, weight-training in the gym and carefully controlling her weight, she is focused on one week in 1996; the Olympic Games regatta, which will be staged in the beautiful American city of Savannah.

Robertson has been to the Olympics before - Barcelona in 1992 - and Britain has been here before - seeing the windsurfer Penny Way streets ahead of the opposition and then falling foul in the 1992 Olympiad to injury, gear damage and sheer pressure.

The 26-year-old Robertson, a former head girl of Alva Academy in Stirling, is only too aware that being ahead of the game at this stage will count for nothing as the opposition picks up pace closer to the Games. She also knows that, being a single-hander, there will be no one else to blame.

Not that she is entirely alone. She has alongside her a personal coach and an equipment development engineer, Peter Bentley. She has the Royal Yachting Association's chief coach, Rod Carr, and a personal fitness and nutritional expert, Paul Ankers. There is also the occasional visit to the RYA's sports psychologist, Ian Maynard.

So is she really as soft and charming as she appears? And is that a problem when competing at the top level?

'She has a nice persona and is good at public relations, but she's bloody determined,' Carr said. 'Don't get on the wrong side of Shirley, she's a tough cookie.'

The warning to competitors who might underestimate her is repeated by Robertson herself. 'I don't shout a lot on the racecourse and I'm not an intimidator, but if someone is trying something on then I give them a look.

I want people to know not to mess with me,' she said.

After all, there is a lot riding on this. Her family and boyfriend were left behind in Scotland as she headed south to sail full-time - to travel, compete and train both here and abroad. A career, based on a degree in recreation and management from Heriot Watt University - 'though these days I wish I had been an accountant' - has been put on hold, as has any thought of marriage and children.

It was after securing her degree that, having been 35th in the world championship and two weeks into a master's course, she decided that if she was to succeed 'I had to give it everything' and moved to Eastleigh in Hampshire.

Links with Scotland remain, however, although, as an exile, she is often forgotten in her own country. She has sponsorship from Miller Civil Engineering and Pringle, and never forgets that it was her father who taught her, encouraged her, bought her a boat and then saw her spotted as a winner of the future on the unlikely puddle that is Linlithgow Loch.

Even the support from two Scottish companies is not enough. A poor result in the world championship this year cost her her elite rating and a large grant from the Sports Aid Foundation. Winning the pre-Olympic regatta in Savannah restored confidence but not the cash. It costs her, she says, pounds 40- 50,000 a year to run her campaign. Travel, shipping her boat, supporting a coach's boat and paying tune- up partners swallows money fast.

What she has been able to do is analyse her strengths and weaknesses, pick out the problems which need addressing and devise ways of solving them.

Robertson also believes that the little Europe, with its carbon-fibre mast, is capable of being developed to give her a speed edge. However, technique is still important - the boat weighs 45 kilos and she is 65 kilos, so the slightest shift can affect the trim of the boat.

She can be inclined to gamble - 'banging a corner' is the slang term - and the more methodical approach is designed to bring a confidence through preparation that should give her at least a 50- 50 chance of winning a medal.

'The problem for Shirley is one which faces most Olympic sailors,' Carr said. 'They have to compete in European and world championship fleets, which are large and operate the old style of long races. In the Olympics the fleets are relatively small, the courses are shorter and the races last just 45 minutes.

'That requires a certain mind- set as there are twice as many starts and twice as many times when the first tack off the line is even more important.

So the ones who stand on the podium will be those who are best at sailing the Olympic exam. Shirley is better in smaller fleets round smaller courses.'

It is all worth it? 'I do spend a huge amount of time on my own. But I like to be in control and self- sufficient,' said Robertson, whose training partner is Aisling Bowman, the woman most likely to represent Ireland in the Europe class in 1996. 'It's a bit like being married, but of course we will be fierce competitors at the Games,' said Robertson, who has recently taken to training with some of the men in the talent-packed British squad of Laser sailors.

Bowman has even refused to play board games like Monopoly with Robertson any more, so competitive has the training regime become.

Robertson has considerable admiration for the round-the-world lone walker Ffyona Campbell. 'She was portrayed as a cow, yet I felt a lot of sympathy.

I knew what it meant for her,' she said.

It is sailing that brings the biggest buzz. 'I love being in my boat,' she said. 'I get in it and I feel comfortable. It is a nice place to be.'

(Photograph omitted)