It’s just over a year to the London 2012 Games, but Britain’s top sailors are feeling the pressure as they face the selection process for the UK team. Matthew Sheahan spends time with them for the first of our Olympic features.

The road to the Olympics part two

Having said that, not all the sailors face the same pressure. For the
boardsailors, Nick Dempsey and Bryony Shaw, both medallists from
previous Olympics, as well as Iain Percy and Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson, Gold
medallists in the Star, there is virtually no competition for a place
in the team. At the other end of the scale, the surplus of talent and
fierce competition among sailors in the 49er, 470 and Finn classes
provide an embarrassment of riches for British sailing.

At the
Olympic classes regatta in Miami earlier this year, the British took all
three podium places in the 49er and Finn classes. In the 470, the new
and promising talent of Luke Patience and Stuart Bithell are in hot
contention with 2006 and 2008 world champions Nic Asher and Elliot
Willis. And the return of 470 double Silver medallist Nick Rogers looks
set to make the final call even trickier for selectors in this class.

selectors for the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) play the selection
process close to their chests. In fact, it is a term of the sailors’
contracts with the RYA and the funding it provides that they are
forbidden to discuss selection.

“The selection process is one that
we don’t declare,” explains the RYA’s Olympic manager Stephen Park.
“There are plenty of countries that would love to know the process we
use, but this is one of our strong hands and we are not about to reveal

“What we will say is that the selection process alone places
huge pressure on the sailors and is a challenge in itself. Having said
that, the successful qualifiers will be in good shape for the Olympic

Ben Ainslie is a prime example of the pressure that even
some of the most experienced sailors will feel. The decision to go for
his fifth consecutive Olympic medal, when Team Origin’s plans for a
British America’s Cup campaign collapsed, may have simplified Ainslie’s
focus for the next two seasons, but it hasn’t made his life any easier.
Ainslie may have won Sail Melbourne, but Ed Wright is the current Finn
World Champion and Giles Scott won the Miami event earlier this year.

there are additional demands. A subtle change in the rules reducing the
minimum wind speed for free pumping down from 12 to 10 knots might seem
like a small change, but it has placed huge additional demands on
training for the Finn.

“This Olympic campaign is very different
from any other I’ve undertaken,” says Ainslie. “In ten knots of wind the
boat is less likely to be planing and there are few, if any, waves to
surf down, so the pumping is much harder. Getting the right technique
and having the fitness to do it can mean a gain of minutes on the
racecourse. Sail for Gold is a critical event for me; it’s as simple as

A Gold medal in Weymouth in 2012 would make Ainslie the
world’s most successful Olympic sailor, matching Paul Elvström’s total
of four Gold medals and Torben Grael’s two Golds, one Silver and two
Bronze. Plus, the British would achieve it on home soil. For Ainslie the
pressure has never been greater.

Percy and Simpson are facing
something similar in the Star. In an informal practice session ahead of
the Princesa Sophia Trophy event in Palma, Mallorca, the pair stepped
ashore looking utterly exhausted.

“We, like everybody else, have been working hard in our training and testing
but getting back into fleet racing proved how much everybody else has
raised their game,” says Percy. “Our first practice race was tough and
we’re in no doubt that we’ve still got a long way to go.”

The bottom line is that the path towards 2012 is a long and challenging one that will place increasing demands on all
the sailors and they need to manage their programme carefully to peak at
the right time. When you’re living out of a kitbag, this can be far
harder than it seems.

Over the next 12 months we will look at a
selection of British sailors aiming for 2012. We will ask what type of
people they are, how they live, what their goals are and what they
aspire to do outside their sport. In short, we will try to find out what
makes them the sporting exceptions they are.

  1. 1. Introduction
  2. 2. The road to the Olympics part two
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