Eight years ago, British sailor Ben Ainslie won a record-setting fourth successive Olympic gold medal in nerve-shredding, back-breaking style in front of a home crowd who could hardly bear to watch. You do not have to spend long in his company to understand how he did it…
One comment stands out when Ben Ainslie talks about the race in which he became the most decorated Olympic sailor of all time. In pain, out of form and stuck behind a rival enjoying the regatta of his life, Ainslie had left himself entirely out of options in the 11th and final race of the Finn class at London 2012.
And that, of course, was just how he liked it.
“I still get a tinge of excitement thinking about that final race, what it meant and the pressure involved,” said the man, who after a traumatic campaign knew he simply had to finish ahead of Denmark’s Jonas Hogh-Christensen or else face the prospect of failing to meet the sky-high expectations of his home nation.
“Those moments you really have to embrace – you either end up quaking in your boots or you take it on and see it as an opportunity. There are no two ways about it. I have been fortunate in my career, I have taken the positive view on them and said, ‘It’s great to be in this position. What an opportunity, go and try and make the most of it’.”
After triumphing in the Finn class at both Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008, Ainslie went into London 2012 as the overwhelming favourite. Racing in his home waters of Weymouth the man who also won gold in the Laser class at Sydney 2000 looked a nailed-on certainty. But no one had told Hogh-Christensen.
An old friend who had entered the hard-hitting, heavyweight world of the one-man Finn dinghy at the same time as Ainslie, the Dane led his storied rival home in both the first two races. He went on to win the fifth outing too and in fact kept the double defending champion behind him in each of the opening six contests.
“It was the best I had ever seen him sail or, frankly, seen anyone sail, in my Olympic career,” Ainslie said. “He was absolutely on fire and I certainly wasn’t on the form I needed to be.”
Way down, Ainslie recalls how grateful he was to reach the rest day, just over halfway through the competition. Camped out in his room at the Olympic Village in Portland, Ainslie pored over race videos for clues to Hogh-Christensen’s dominance and discussed the technical set-up of his boat with his coach. But perhaps most crucially of all, he turned his TV on.
“I took some inspiration from watching Bradley Wiggins [GBR] in the [men’s cycling] time trial,” Ainslie revealed. “He smashed the time trial with a totally dominant performance and I remember watching and thinking here’s an athlete at the top of his game who has gone out and performed and [thinking to himself] ‘You should be performing similarly, so pull your socks up and get on with it’.”
Ainslie also sought another source of motivation. Referring back to an incident in race two, when he felt Hogh-Christensen and Dutchman Pieter-Jan Postma had teamed up against him to force him into an unfair penalty, Ainslie infamously warned the pair they had “made a big mistake” by “making him angry”.
Eight years later the man now leading the Ineos Team UK America’s Cup challenge is somewhat embarrassed by ‘The Hulk’ insinuations those comments brought with them. Although, he stands by the tactic.
“There was an element of using it as a bit of an opportunity to send them a bit of a message and let them know I wasn’t going down without a fight and the race was very much still on,” said the British athlete who also takes part in the annual global racing championship SailGP. “Sometimes you do need something like that, a spur, to change and that was very much part of that.”
It worked. Ainslie won race seven and finished in third, one place ahead of Hogh-Christensen, in race eight. Another win in the 10th and penultimate contest sent Ainslie into second overall, leaving a relatively simple equation for the medal race: finish ahead of the Dane with Postma outside the top three and the Briton would win a record-breaking fourth gold medal.
Modest, as well as flint-hard, Ainslie has to be pushed to reveal that there was one more piece to this finely balanced puzzle: his crumbling body. Among the oldest and lightest men in the field, he was in agony.
“The competition itself wasn’t enjoyable,” Ainslie admitted. “I had back surgery in February that year and was recovering from that. I had some other issues too, muscle strains in the tendons in my ankles. When you are hiking out over the side of the boat you are obviously using your ankles to support the rest of your body and if you start getting tendonitis there that is problematic.
“So, I was in quite a lot of pain and my fitness wasn’t where it needed to be for a strong-wind regatta, which we had. It was very, very tough. If it hadn’t been the event it was, I almost certainly wouldn’t have made it to the end.”
The thousands on the cliffs and beaches of Weymouth ensured that Ainslie did, of course, come out fighting in the final race. The local hero, who was “not really interested in any other colour than gold”, poured his focus on Hogh-Christensen, using every ounce of experience, know-how and sheer willpower to keep him in his rear-view mirror.
Postma very nearly ruined the crowd’s day by grabbing the finish he needed, after a big wind shift in the third and final upwind leg.
“That suddenly became very tense right at the end,” said Ainslie, who could only watch as Postma valiantly charged up the field. “He went for it in a pretty high-risk manoeuvre, unlikely given the calibre of sailors in that top 10 that he was going to be able to pull it off. Unfortunately for him he clipped the New Zealand sailor Dan Slater and incurred a penalty in trying to pass and that was the end of that.”
Gold it was for Britain’s high-seas hero and a nation exhaled.
“I think there is probably still an element of relief eight years later,” Ainslie laughed. “It’s often the case in sport. I just feel privileged to have had the opportunity to be in that moment.”