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Scuttlebutt Interviews:

Ben Ainslie, 3-Time Finn Gold Cup Champion

click to enlarge
Photo by Rick Tomlinson

Ben Ainslie, the 27-year old newly crowned Finn Gold Cup champion from Lymington, England, provides Scuttlebutt with some insight on his recent accomplishment and why UK Olympic sailing has lately been so in phase.

After UK’s Ben Ainslie twice claimed the Laser World Championship, and earned silver and gold medals in the 1996 and 2000 Olympics, the timing seemed right for his transition into the America’s Cup arena. But when the setting at the OneWorld Challenge camp during the 2003 America’s Cup campaign was no longer to his liking, Ainslie departed and returned to what he knew best – the Olympics.

“I moved on from the Laser as I had achieved everything I had set out to achieve,” Ainslie said. “I felt I needed a new challenge both from a motivational point of view and also technically, which I hope will help me in my future sailing.” So it would be the Finn class, where he recently won his third consecutive Finn Gold Cup (aka, World Championship).

Arriving to the site of the 2004 Finn Gold in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil a month in advance gave Ainslie the chance to participate in the Brazilian Nationals and the South American Championships. When Ainslie finished third in the Brazilians, then second in the SA’s, one could wonder if this was a calculated tactic or just coincidence. “I was certainly not running on 100% for the first two events for a number of reasons but there was a calculated build-up to peaking for the Gold Cup,” Ainslie admitted. “There were a lot of lessons learned from the first two events which helped me in the Gold Cup performance.”

Assisting in the build-up was the UK’s team approach. “There were four of us in the British squad for the Worlds. For the first two weeks Paul Hobson from North UK coached and also worked a little bit on the sail development,” Ainslie revealed. “For the World Championships David Howlett was out as coach, which was great for me as I seem to work very well with ‘Sid’ at the big events. Like most of the other teams we were receiving daily weather reports and we also put some time into trying to work out the currents, although that did seem to be quite futile at times.”

click to enlarge
Photo by Rick Tomlinson

While such a thorough approach toward event preparation is more the norm these days than the exception, it is not without risk. Recently it was reported how the UK’s top Laser campaigner Paul Goodison “crashed and burned” from the incessant training. “The Lasers are tough mentally as there are no equipment issues so training becomes an obsession,” Ainslie recalled. “I suffered from similar issues when I was younger but dealt with it by prioritizing the key events and working up to each of those, rather than going flat out for the whole season.” Goodison has recently returned to the Laser campaign after taking a break from the rigorous schedule, and Ainslie notes “Goody is already back to his winning ways.”

A comprehensive, calculated event circuit schedule requires certain financial pieces of the puzzle to be in place. “I have been fortunate that my past results have enabled me to secure sponsorship with ‘Volvo’ as a title sponsor,” Ainslie remarks, but “contrary to popular opinion we (UK) don’t run half million dollar budgets and funding is actually very tight for the whole squad. Most top sailors in the UK have personal sponsorship in one form or another!”

A look at the 2004 UK Olympic Team, where every member is either a past medalist, a current or previous world champion or at worst, a top ten worlds finisher, Ainslie appears to be in good company during the final stretch toward the Olympics. “We have been very fortunate in the UK. After a dismal 1996 Olympics the government finally decided to give Olympic sports some financial assistance and British sailing gained from this by having an extremely well run National governing body (RYA). The last decade has also seen a new generation of sailors come through who seem to be pushing harder and getting better results.”

And the UK does not seem to be resting. This past November it was announced that fifteen-year-old British youth sailing phenom Hannah Mills signed a four-year sponsorship agreement with Pindar. By identifying and supporting young talent, the UK’s commitment toward Olympic sailing continues to grow. “Just recently in the UK there has been a real increase in sailing sponsorship and Hannah is a prime example of that,” Ainslie reports. “The sport is gaining much more recognition and exposure and so commercial possibility’s are unfolding. Ellen Macarthur does quite a lot of good for us in this department.”

Perhaps that was what ISAF was thinking when they proposed the ‘World Series’ for Olympic events. While it is not yet clear where this concept is headed, it does seem to be a bid to support those on the sailing circuit. “To be honest I don’t know much about it as my mind’s been elsewhere, but my initial thoughts are that a World series for Olympic classes would be a fantastic move, both for the sport in general and for the sailors on the circuit. It would certainly increase the chances of sailors getting sponsorship to pay for their campaigns.”

click to enlarge
Photo by Rick Tomlinson

As the UK continues to gain momentum, Ainslie notes the advantages his country has provided him over the Americans. “US sailing from the outside seems to be well organized but perhaps struggles for resources, which is strange for such a huge nation. The fact that the US is so big also makes it hard to run national training clinics or regattas with all the top talent. In England we don’t have those sorts of issues.”

Ainslie also wonders if the US sailors will need to start campaigning earlier, rather than completing college prior to making their Olympic commitment. “I think the college sailing in the US turns out some very tactically sharp sailors, but it’s very different to Olympic sailing. The choice talented young sailors have to make is whether to go to college and try for the Olympic after you graduate or to save the studying for retirement. It’s a very hard decision but increasingly sailors worldwide are taking the latter option and gaining the experience early or at least studying part-time whilst on the circuit.”

As for Ainslie, who says he is ready for another go at the America’s Cup after this summer, not even the temptations of Rio could take him off track in his drive toward the Olympics. But at the conclusion of the Gold Cup and with the commencement of the famed Rio Carnival, is the Finn class too “Olympic” (read: too serious, too professional) to enjoy in this festivity? Stated like a veteran of the sailing circuit, Ainslie notes, “What goes on tour stays on tour.”

Additional information on Ben Ainslie is available at his website: www.benainslie.org.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
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