British sailors Shirley Robertson and Ben Ainslie both clinched gold medals today after remarkable racing on Sydney Harbour, while Iain Percy, Ian Walker and Mark Covell are safe in the knowledge that they will receive an Olympic medal of some colour when the deciding races are run tomorrow afternoon.
In the Europe class, 32-year-old Shirley Robertson realised a 12-year dream and secured the gold medal after a heart-stopping final two races on course area B. After finishing 16th in the first race of the day, while her closest rival Margriet Matthysse (Netherlands) took the penultimate winner’s gun, Robertson had to finish within four boats of the Dutch 1996 silver medallist in the last race to capture gold.
While Matthysse took over the lead on the second downwind leg after a gust propelled her from 6th to 1st, Robertson sailed solidly through the fleet up to third place to take the Olympic title by two points.
“Once I had spoken to my coach and checked that I’d won the gold medal I mostly felt relief that it had finished,” reflected Shirley. “It still hasn’t properly sunk in yet as we don’t get our medals until tomorrow night but with the whole British team doing so well I suspect it will be an amazing evening for British sailing.”
Despite such a tense build up, Shirley, who has won a medal at every significant sailing event over the last two seasons, remained calm even after using her second discard in the first race this morning. “I felt pretty comfortable before the race and treated it like any other day but I had a bad first race which meant that the points closed up and I knew I had to sail well. In the end she couldn’t get far enough ahead and enough boats between us to take the Gold medal off me. I’m obviously really pleased that I held it all together when it got really tough,” she added.
Like the rest of the sailing members of Team GB, she acknowledged that the meteorological complexities of Sydney Harbour had presented just as big a challenge as Matthysse. “It’s very tricky sailing and completely different to what we’re used to at international competitions. You really have to get your head out of the boat, see what’s happening and really understand the area and its meteorology. It’s been an interesting challenge.”
For Ben Ainslie, it was Atlanta (1996) all over again as the duel for the Laser class Olympic title came down to Ainslie and four-time world champion and 1996 Gold medal winner Robert Scheidt (Brazil).
Once again, the top step on the podium was settled in the final race. Ainslie needed to beat Scheidt by 10 points in the final race to secure Gold. With the Brazilian such a consistent sailor under pressure, Ben instead elected to cover his opponent and sail him down the fleet. “We’ve had so many battles over the years that I think he expected it,” explained Ben after racing. If Robert finished worse than 21st (his worst result to date), the gold medal would belong to Ainslie.
After one general recall and one abandonment, Ainslie covered Scheidt from the beginning of race 11 and forced the Brazilian to make a rash move at the first windward mark where by he gybed into Ainslie’s water and didn’t give Ben room to avoid a collision. Ainslie protested while Robert broke away and finished in 22nd position which gave Ainslie the provisional Gold medal by one point. The result immediately went to the protest room.
“I thought about the race and decided if I was going to do it that way I was going to have to do a good job. You have to become very single-minded and not have any feelings to go out there and do it,” explained Ben.
“I was a bit annoyed that he managed to get away but he had only done that by breaking the rules. There wasn’t anything I could do about it, I tried to catch up and managed to at one point but it was in vain as on the last beat he went out to the left and got a large shift which left me behind. From where he was I thought he could get back up to t