Impressive haul of eight medals for British sailors at Qingdao International Regatta 30/8/06

Great Britain’s sailors capped off the challenging 2006 Qingdao International Regatta today with an impressive haul of eight medals, including four golds, at this first Test Event for the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games.

Double Olympic gold medallist Ben Ainslie secured a dream comeback in the Finn class after having not raced the Olympic heavyweight dinghy in a year, while top honours also went to Paul Goodison in the Laser, world champions Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks in the 49er class, and 470 sailors Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield who, like Ainslie, have not raced their Olympic boat in 12 months.

Silver medals went to the Yngling trio of Helena Lucas, Annie Lush and Lucy Macgregor, and Star world bronze medallists Iain Percy and Steve Mitchell, while Penny Clark in the Laser Radial and Nic Asher and Elliot Willis claimed secured bronze for Skandia Team GBR.

After Tuesday’s strong winds, Qingdao’s waters returned to a calmer state for the final medal races, in which 14 British boats were vying for honours across nine of the eleven Olympic classes. Winds decreased from 14 knots to 6 during the course of the afternoon, but with a steady breeze present, race officers were able to get through the race schedule on two courses with only minimal delays.

49er world champions and Athens bronze medallists Chris Draper and Simon Hiscocks set the Brits on the winning track. Heading into the double points scoring final medal race with a slender three points lead over Dyen and Rocherieux of France, the Brits had only to finish ahead of their French rivals to secure the gold.

They achieved their goal, finishing the medal race in sixth to the French pair’s tenth, and claimed Skandia Team GBR’s first gold of the regatta. European champions Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes finished sixth.

“When we crossed the finish line we both said “? it’s been a long event!’ This event’s more days than we’ve had races!” Draper explained.

“A lot of people were worrying that it would be a Mickey Mouse venue and it wouldn’t necessarily be the people at the front of the fleet that you’d expect to be. I think we’re pretty happy that it’s not the case,” Draper concluded of the 2008 Olympic sailing venue.

“The racing, for us at least, has been genuinely decent and the race officers were well on top of it so it was a fair regatta. “We got bronze in Athens and at the time we were very disappointed, but as the time has gone on we’ve become a lot happier about it. Looking forward to Beijing we’re really keen to try and do a little bit better there, and to win here at the Test Event is perfect.”

For crew Simon Hiscocks – a double Olympic medallist – the Test Event is a reminder of a job still undone. “I got a silver in Sydney and a bronze in Athens – I’m sure that I know what’s missing.

“We’ll be back here hopefully in two years’ time to try and put that right.”

Ben Ainslie won his final medal race in the Finn to seal his magnificent comeback after a year-long absence from Olympic classes sailing due to America’s Cup commitments. From the total 11 races he’s sailed here in Qingdao, Ainslie has won nine of them, coming second in the other two to clinch overall victory by 28 points.

“The start was pretty exciting and for me I managed to get away quite cleanly, get round the top mark in good shape and get into the lead by the end of the first downwind leg and stay ahead so it was a good race,” recalled the 29-year-old of his medal race.

“I’m very happy with the result, and above all else it’s good experience to be out here in China and see what the venue and the 2008 waters are like.

“I was pretty open-minded coming to this event as I’d only done five days’ training in a whole year, so I wasn’t really sure where I’d stand. Pleasantly surprised is probably the best way to put it – I’m pleased with result and am looking forward to next year and trying to compete again.”

World bronze medallist Ed Wright came second in the Finn medal race to finish eighth overall.

The 470 men’s class proved a lucrative one for Skandia Team GBR in Qingdao – Athens silver medallists Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield marked their comeback to the class by taking gold, while Nic Asher and Elliot Willis will be snapping at their heels for the single British spot for 2008, having claimed bronze at this Test Event.

Paul Goodison showed sheer relief at winning gold in the Laser class after a week blighted by illness. The 28-year-old European Champion and world number one crossed first in the medal race to clinch the regatta win by 11 points.

“It’s just a relief, because halfway through the week I wasn’t feeling very well, things weren’t going quite as well as I wanted them to and then it’s just all come good at the end of the week so I’m pretty happy now,” said Goodison.

“I think it’s always nice to try and win in the venue that you’re going to be sailing in and psychologically, knowing that you can beat the other guys out there in these waters is really good.”

Skandia Team GBR development squad sailor Nick Thompson – the 2004 Youth World medallist – also had a notable result in the Laser, finishing eighth overall.

Iain Percy and Steve Mitchell were disappointed with their silver medal in the Star class, having gone into the final in pole position. They were beaten in the final showdown by American’s Andrew Horton and J Brad Nichol.

“I’m totally annoyed with my performance in that race,” said Percy afterwards. “I’ve spent two years match racing to just show absolutely zero ability in match racing today!”

“Halfway up the first beat we were looking quite good,” Mitchell elaborated. “We made one move that didn’t quite stick and that gave [the Americans] the advantage and in that type of short race it’s hard to get the advantage back.”

Helena Lucas proved herself a worthy stand-in helm for double Olympic gold medallist Shirley Robertson, as she steered her crew Annie Lush and Lucy Macgregor to silver in the Yngling fleet, while a premature start for Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Katherine Hopson damaged their chances of a top three finish, with the Olympic gold medallists and new crew Hopson finishing fourth overall after crossing eighth in the final.

Penny Clark was already assured of a bronze in the Laser Radial heading into today, but couldn’t quite get the better of New Zealand’s Jo Aleh for the silver medal position. Tornado sailors Rob Wilson and Mark Bulkeley pulled their way into fifth with a second in the final race, while Nick Dempsey finished eighth overall in the RS:X windsurfing fleet.

“I’m delighted with the team’s performance out here in Qingdao,” said RYA Olympic Manager Stephen Park. “Our goal coming out to this Olympic Test Event was to target three medals, so to go home with eight is just fantastic.

“It’s particularly pleasing to see strong performances not just from old hands, but some of the newer faces in the squad as well.

Park continued: “Perhaps more important, though, is that we’ve been able to really get a feel for the Olympic waters and gain first hand experience of what has, without doubt, been a challenging venue.

“However, we’re still two years away from the Games itself, and the standard across all the Olympic sailing nations just keeps on improving. There’s certainly a long way to go and a lot of work to be done before Beijing.”