Silver man in Savannah

Ben Ainslie, Britain's youngest sailing Olympian, presents a diary of his dream voyage
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The Independent Online
8 July This is where the Olympics really started for me. My whole family moved to Savannah in April to allow me to acclimatise, to get a feel for the place; but today, two weeks before the first race, the Laser fleet drew for boats.

Lasers are all identical - the boats, masts and sails are provided by the organisers - and as the 56 sailors sat in the marquee waiting to draw a number, it was a chance to eye up the opposition. Most of the guys I reckoned would be up at the front I knew well but there were others from countries whose three-letter sail codes I had never seen before.

10 July It took me a day to get my boat allocation, get out to the Day Marina where the regatta was based, get my boat and prepare it before I could go sailing. Because everything is supplied, there's not much you can do to change them. Even so, it's the little things, a bit of tape here, a shorter rope there, the placement of the wool telltales on the sail that allow me to watch the flow of the invisible air over it, that make the difference.

I was glad that I had spent the time here. I felt I knew the local waters, the wind patterns, the tides, the look of the sky, the general atmosphere, probably better than any of my rivals and that certainly helped me relax; while I could see others anxious to get on the water, I was in no hurry.

When I did get out I used an old sail. I figured that if I couldn't change the sail they issued I'd be better off saving it.

11-21 July During the days leading up to the practice race on 21 July I spent the time sailing alone, getting used to the boat or lining up against anyone who was prepared to show their hand. I didn't go to the opening ceremony in Atlanta as it was a four-hour journey and we would not have got back until 4am, but I was proud to carry the flag for the British team at the sailors' version of the event in Savannah.

22 July The day of the first race and I tried to establish a routine. I got up around 8am, had some breakfast, did some stretching and went for a short run, which loosened me up and gave me a few minutes by myself to think about the racing ahead.

Then it was down by water-taxi to the Day Marina, about half an hour with the other athletes - 450 in all. I was able to sit alone in the corner and think; some read, others listened to personal stereos. There was an eerie silence today.

On the 45-minute sail out to the course I was just trying to get all the right things into my mind: what the wind and tide were doing, was I drinking enough? When the five-minute gun to the start went it all suddenly dawned on me and I had to try to refocus. Then a series of thunderstorms came through, and we didn't get a start at all.

23 July The first race. The sailing conditions were familiar and I got a reasonable start but I tried to cross ahead of the Korean when he had right of way and he hit me so I had to do a 720-degree penalty turn. I made some of it up but got caught the wrong side of a wind-shift and finished 27th from 56.

I also got overheated and felt in a really bad way. I think it was a sign that I was more tense than I had realised. In the second race I managed to pace myself a bit more like a runner, which I realised the others were doing. Things were better and I finished fourth, but unfortunately I found myself in a protest which kept me in the protest room until late that night. Unfortunately, no one could find a crucial witness so I went home worried at about 11pm.

24 July A better day with a seventh and a second and I was up to fifth overall. By this time I realised that as long I went round the first mark in the top five or so, that was a position I could work from. The conditions were very shifty and, despite my time here, unpredictable. By now I knew a medal was possible and a lot of pressure was taken off me when I won the protest from the previous day.

25 July The wind was blowing. A strong sea breeze kicked in and I got a good start. I got up to second behind the world champion and gold medal favourite, Robert Scheidt, from Brazil, and in the second race I scored my first win.

It was blowing 25 knots and my boat handling came into play. I blew by the New Zealand guy on the last downwind leg to win. Really happy with that day. I knew then that there were very few in it - the Norwegian, the German, Scheidt and myself.

26 July Another second and first and I was beginning to feel really confident. Others in the British team were coming to the end of their racing and were really supportive. I was concentrating well, and I liked the wind conditions. What was particularly satisfying was being able to sail past the Brazilian to win and go into the overall lead.

27-28 July Two days off when I would rather have raced on. I went to the cinema a couple of times and played some very bad golf to try and take my mind off the sailing but I think the time allowed the others to refocus.

29 July Scheidt had me in his sights. He started near me and tacked in front of me whenever I tacked to try and push me down the fleet, which is fair enough - I ended up 16th.

In the second race I was back on form and finished second despite the fact the Scheidt was trying to attack me again. We had a battle all the way around which ended in a confrontation at the last windward mark when we both did 720-degree penalty turns but unfortunately he caught me in the wrong as I came out of my penalty turns and I had to do more. I was down to fourth by the time I had stopped spinning but I blasted past two boats on the final leg, nearly capsizing in the process, and finished second behind Scheidt. This was crucial. I was one point behind with one race to sail. I needed to finish ahead of him with one boat between us to win gold.

31 July I decided I was going to attack so Scheidt wouldn't think he could walk all over me, and as we lined up for the first start I went to find him.

I also reckoned it would be easier for me to put a boat between us if we were both working through the fleet than if we were first and second. It seemed to work well but unfortunately the first two starts, when I started well, were recalled because too many boats were over the line and on the third start they flew the black flag which means that any boats spotted over the line early are out of the race.

I went on the attack again and with a few seconds to go I felt like I was in good shape. However, looking back on it I think he intentionally took me over the line early. I saw him sheet on and go and I thought I couldn't risk not going with him in case the start is called all-clear. We both went, with a bunch of other boats and it was another general recall. However, they spotted him and me and we were out.

I couldn't believe it. I considered sailing the race and fighting it out in the protest room but it gradually dawned on me that this was how the Olympics would end for me. At the time I felt really disappointed but I sailed over to the spectator boat and saw my dad who said: "Well done, don't worry about it, it's a great achievement." I gradually changed my mind and by the time I reached the dock and everyone congratulated me I began to feel pretty good.

After a team dinner we went to the local haunts, I had a few beers and rolled home just before sunrise.

2 August There were lots of British people at the medal ceremony, and they gave me a great reception, which was nice. Then it was party time again.

It's been a great experience and I was really glad to have got a medal, which was my aim since the trials last year. It should obviously help me for the next Olympics in Sydney in terms of financial support . . . if I qualify.

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