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Sailing into history
2:50pm Tuesday 11th November 2008 in Interviews
WINNING your third consecutive Olympic gold medal must be a life-changing experience.
But when you suddenly realise that you have secured your place in history as Britain's greatest Olympic sailor, it all begins to get a bit surreal.
This is the situation Ben Ainslie found himself in when he was first to cross the line in the Finn medal race at Fusion Bay, Qingdao.
At that moment, he triumphed over former champion Rodney Patterson, who claimed two golds and one silver between 1968 and 1976, and became something of a legend.
“It’s a huge honour,” said Ben, who attended Terra Nova School in Holmes Chapel.
“It’s a little bit surreal to be compared alongside someone like Rodney Pattisson but it’s a great feeling.
"They say there is only a certain calibre of Olympian who can win more than one gold medal."Ben Ainslie
“There was also this huge sense of relief because the Olympics only come around every four years and you don’t know how many chances you have to get it done.”
But it certainly was not all plain sailing for the 31-year-old. The Olympian’s nerves were shattered when the race had to be abandoned twice when the wind just switched off and it effectively became a floating match.
“That was really frustrating because it felt like I had one hand on the medal. I just had to wait until the next day and stick to my guns,” said Ben, who was born in Macclesfield.
This only made him all the more determined to succeed when he kept his promise to stick ‘like glue’to his closest rival, American Zach Railey, in the strong 20+ knot conditions.
“I had to keep a close eye on him – I didn’t want to take anything for granted,” Ben added.
Ben’s achievement even saw him being compared to the Beijing heroics of Michael Phelps by Olympics chief Jacques Rogge.
“They say there is only a certain calibre of Olympian who can win more than one gold medal. But as far as I’m concerned I just achieved what I set out to achieve,” he said.
Back home, Ben’s dad Roddy, mum Sue and sister Fleur all got together to watch the race and provided the emotional support he needed from overseas.
“We kept in close contact and they were a huge support. They were ecstatic when I won and they’re already looking forward to 2012,” he added.
Ben, who also holds nine world championships and eight European championships, came back to a hero’s welcome when the Olympic plane returned to the UK.
“It was great to be flying back with such a successful team and when the plane landed in London, the number of people who had turned up for us was awesome. It’s been great ever since,” said Ben, who has an OBE.
Ben’s other Olympic golds were secured in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004 but his Olympic voyage actually began in Atlanta in 1996 when he scooped a silver medal at the tender age of 19.
For most people, this would be mind-blowing but Ben was not one to settle for second best.
He said: “It was a pretty big thing and I was very wide eyed at the time. The thing is, it was silly, but at the time I came away wondering how many opportunities I’d have to win a gold.
“But thinking back, it was a great achievement.”
Rewind the clock even further and you get a better idea why Ben had great things ahead of him.
His father Roddy was also a successful sailor, who came fourth in the first Whitbread Round-the-World Race in 1973 and when Ben was not at school at Terra Nova, the pair went sailing together in Anglesey.
Then the family moved to Cornwall and Ben started sailing himself on a frosty December morning at the age of eight when he received a luxurious Christmas present – a dinghy.
“I was just growing up and having a good time and one step led to the next,” said Ben, who now lives in Lymington.
But does the Olympian ever miss his simpler, childhood days in Cheshire?
“I was very young when I lived there but I have very fond memories of the beautiful countryside. It’s a shame I’ve not had a chance to go back.
“Terra Nova was a great school – very friendly and really into its sport, which I loved from a young age. I enjoyed every minute of it.”
Now Ben already has his sights firmly locked on the 2012 Games when he will be going for gold for the fourth time.
He added: “Representing your country in London is once in a lifetime opportunity and it will be great to be a part of that...”