Sailor Ben Ainslie on odd hobbies + weighty issues

Ben Ainslie where he’s most at home

Elected the first Olympic torch bearer for London 2012 on UK shores Charles Benedict Ainslie has had some 24 hours.

Just yesterday he won his sixth Finn class world title – three more than any other sailor.

A triple Olympic gold medal winner in three consecutive Games – not forgetting a piddling silver in Atlanta – an MBE at 24, then OBE, now CBE and we all know what might come after that should the 35-year-old win this summer.

But for Ainslie, it’s all about being on the water, even in his time off, he tells me.

You’re a stand out competitor now but did you have the Tom Daley’s about you when you were younger?
Yes and no. I was talented as a kid but I guess I never turned that into fantastic results. I was right at the top nationally but internationally I never really performed that well.

At the age of 15/16 something sort of twigged and I made pretty rapid improvements in experience and performance and, crucially, started getting some results at the senior level.

So at that period I was getting the support of the Royal Yachting Association, the sport’s governing body, and coming through the qualifying ranks and qualifying for the 1996 Olympics.

So when you say you ‘hit 15’; that’s the time when some people decide between a social life or to knuckle down…
Yeah, I think that people go through developing stages at different ages and for me that was a big growing up year where I matured a lot and started thinking for myself a lot more and saw some huge improvements in my performance.

I think that’s a critical period for all young people and those results gave me the confidence to keep going and thought that I could really do something.

You put on 15 kilos (over two stone) when you moved from Laser to Finn class. Is changing weight for different classes common to sailing or is that one of the things that makes you a cut above the rest?
My natural body weight is a lot lighter than what’s perfect for the boat and weight is very important for the different types of boat.

People do have to play around with their bodyweight to find the optimum performance.

I don’t think there’s anything that different about it, it’s just it was more extreme in my case.

Was putting on weight harder than it sounds?
Putting on weight is a lot harder than it sounds. It’s physically very hard. It’s all in muscle mass and it’s a bit more than going to McDonald’s and eating loads of burgers. It was lots of weight training.

You’ve been to four Olympics now. As a sailor, do you feel a part of the occasion, being so far from the Olympic Park, or does it just feel like any other sailing regatta?
It’s a very special event the Olympics and it always will be. There’s always something extra special about representing your country – it’s such a huge event.

Does taking part in the opening ceremony take it out of you? Will you be taking part in 2012?
I’m not sure yet. I need to look more carefully at the racing schedule and the timing of the opening ceremony and check whether there’s any advice on whether it would affect my racing performance. At the end of the day, the performance is the key factor.

Have you missed any before?
Yeah, quite a few. Due to the racing schedule, but that’s just part of it.

Have you been to any?
Yeah, I went to the opening ceremony in Sydney. That was fantastic. Really great but I haven’t been to any of the others.

During your downtime in an Olympics, which other sport are you most likely to watch?
Oh, all of them. Anything that Britain’s competing in, it’s great to watch.

I understand you’ve taken up flying recently, going over Weymouth in your first few sessions. Is this just a ruse to get even further ahead of your competitors by flying over the Olympic course as well as training on it?
Well, it’s certainly a different perspective, that’s for sure. It’s a good way to get the mind freed up. It’s something I’ve always wanted to do and I’m really enjoying it.

Would you ever get into aerobatics or is it just plain flying for you?
I think just flying for now, then see where we go from there.

You need a lot of flying hours to get a pilot’s licence. You got time for that?
It is hard fitting it in and certainly it’s going to take me a while but it’s going pretty well and I keep fitting it in as and when I can. Eventually I’ll get there.

You’ve said that flying has got a lot of similarities to sailing. What did you mean by that?
It’s the feel of the plane, understanding the mechanics of what’s happening is very similar to sailing a boat, and the physics behind it, and you need quite a high level of concentration.

There’s many similarities and I’m enjoying going through the process of learning.

Different types of sailing call for alternative personality traits – in the Finn you’re alone in a boat, the America’s Cup you’re surrounded by crew. Which type favours your personality?
It is very different and being part of a team is probably more rewarding than it is on your own.

You have people to share it with, which is great, but when you’re not successful in a team it certainly is a lot harder because it’s harder to find out where the issues are.

If you’re sailing on your own and you’re not performing well, you don’t have to go too far to work out where the problems lie.

It can be incredibly frustrating [in a group] but it’s a lot about communication skills and working well as a group of people – you know those are skills you really have to work on.

Would you ever do an Ellen MacArthur and sail solo round the world?
No, I don’t think so. I think those guys are incredible taking on that challenge. Certainly they have a huge amount of my respect but I don’t think it’s something I’d necessarily look to do in the future. But who knows, maybe one day.

And after the Olympics? Strictly Come Dancing? Continuing with your motivational speaking? Taking time out? Keep calm and carry on? What’s the plan?
Normally, in the past, I make sure I’m moving on to something else quite swiftly, always have another challenge rather than the day the Olympics stops your life stops, to a certain extent.

So whether that’s the America’s Cup, or something else, I need to sort that out but I hope I’ll know what I’m doing the day after the final race and move on to the next focus.

[A few months later British boat, Ben Ainslie Racing, was announced with the aim of taking part in the 35th America’s Cup; that’s right, the one after San Francisco next year, which you knew, obviously. Looks like he found his ‘next focus’.]


Ainslie is known to have the Incredible Hulks about him if anyone gets in his way

Would you ever do the Volvo Ocean Race [sailing round the world, port to port for 18-months]?
It’s something I’ve always wanted to do – right now the focus is the Olympics. It just depends really.

You don’t seem like the relaxing type.
Not really.

So, you’ve got a two week holiday. Do you go flotilla sailing around Greece? Go on a city break to steer clear of the water…
I do go on sailing holidays. I’ve done quite a few bare boat charters around the world to get away and actually enjoying sailing on the water rather than it being all about the performance. With family and friends, I really enjoy those sort of holidays.

One major difference at this Olympics will be social media aspect. You don’t seem hugely active in that area. Not your thing?
No, I’m not really into Twitter. Obviously it’s something that’s caught out quite a few people.

It’s interesting, I suppose, if people are into that sort of thing, keeping people updated on what they’re doing day in day out.

I’m generally quite a private person so it’s not really my sort of thing.” [Ben has since succumbed. He’s at @AinslieBen]

You have got a Facebook fan page…
Yeah, that’s scary enough.

Your sport seems less age dependent. Can you see yourself as an old sea dog, like 408-year-old sea-faring legend Robin Knox-Johnston?
We’re very fortunate that it’s a diverse sport. The America’s Cup is another challenge – in certain positions on the boat, like helming, you can get away with being a little bit older so there’s some opportunities there.

So it really just depends what type of racing you’re doing. I think as far as the Olympics go, it’ll be hard to go past this one… maybe.

Ben social
Ben on Instagram

If you like this you may also like:
Documentary review Maiden Trip Teen sailor wants to take to the seas but first she has to take on the system
My Olympic Odyssey It begins Ticket fiascos, romance and catsuits, my Olympic Odyssey encompasses my whole sporting life

Author: Jo Gunston

Roving blogging superfan shares behind the scenes stories of her sports life and the best of those from like-minded souls.

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