British sailor looks to continue medal-winning ways at London Games

Ben Ainslie will attempt to capture his 4th Olympic gold medal at the London Summer Games, which start next month.

Bernat Armangue/AP/File
This file photo shows Britain's Ben Ainslie celebrating after winning the gold medal during the Finn sailing competition of the 2008 Beijing Olympics in Qingdao, China.

Britannia still rules the waves, at least in Olympic sailing and definitely when it comes to Ben Ainslie.

Ainslie will be one of the faces of the London Olympics, a rare instance when a sailor has attracted such attention.

The 35-year-old Ainslie will try to win his fourth straight gold medal, and fifth straight medal overall, which would make him the most successful Olympic sailor ever. If Ainslie wins at Weymouth on the English Channel, he'd match the four straight golds won by Denmark's Paul Elvstrom from 1948-60. Ainslie also has a silver medal from 1996.

One British journalist has called Ainslie "The greatest sailor Britain has seen since Nelson."

That would be Admiral Horatio Lord Nelson, whose victory over the French and Spanish fleets in 1805 is celebrated in London's Trafalgar Square.

Perspective or hype? Maybe both.

Although he's living in rarefied air, Ainslie, the son of a sailor, chuckles somewhat sheepishly at the Nelson comparison.

"I mean, I've had lots of things said about me over the years, so I'll take that as a compliment," said Ainslie, whose father, Roddy, skippered a boat in the first Whitbread Round the World Race in 1973-74 and helped his son turn a hobby into a dominating career. "But really, the most important thing is to just keep focused on getting results and not worry too much about what other people are saying."

Ainslie doesn't need a broadside of cannons to do his bidding. He did, however, stun the sailing world with the nautical equivalent of road rage when he grappled with a TV cameraman on a media boat at the world championships in Australia in December.

Angered by the vessel getting too close to the race and creating a wash that he felt helped one of his rivals, Ainslie jumped from his dinghy at the end of a race, swam to the TV boat, argued with the skipper, grabbed the cameraman, then dived back into the water and swam to his dinghy.

The outburst could have cost him a shot at Olympic history. Instead, various sailing governing bodies decided that being declared guilty of gross misconduct and disqualified from the regatta was punishment enough.

So when the Olympic torch relay began last month, Ainslie was the first person to carry the flame.

Ainslie is ultra-competitive — some might say merciless — and has succeeded in desperate situations that might have left others wilting at the back of the fleet.

Each Olympic gold medal has brought an honor from the royal family. Ainslie currently is a Commander of the British Empire. A fourth gold medal could lead to knighthood.

Perhaps he'll be the one to return sailing's most coveted prize, the America's Cup, to England.

For now, there's at least one more chapter to write in his Olympic career.

Sailing in his home waters will bring both familiarity and heavy expectations.

"There will be a huge amount of pressure," said Ainslie, who sails in the Finn class. "There always is at the Olympics, I think, whether you're a home competitor or from another nation. I think really, the pressure that you put on yourself as an individual athlete, to really perform and make all that effort worthwhile, that's huge. It's something that you have to accept and deal with. I mean, we'll probably have a few more distractions than most, being the home team, and again, it's about really being aware of that and dealing with situations and hopefully it doesn't' affect your performance."

As Ainslie has shown in the last three Olympics, he can handle that pressure.

Ainslie was 19 when he took silver in 1996 in a bitter loss to Brazil's Robert Scheidt in the Laser class. Scheidt induced Ainslie into a penalty at the start of the final race and then sailed to gold.

It was the last time Ainslie didn't stand atop the medals podium.

Four years later, Ainslie expertly exacted his revenge on Sydney Harbor.

After calculating that his chances for the gold rested on Scheidt finishing 21st or worst in the final race, the Brit sailed the Brazilian down the fleet, gaining control over his rival and then letting everyone else sail ahead. Scheidt eventually broke Ainslie's covering tactics but didn't make up enough places. Ainslie counted the boats ahead of him at the finish as he prevailed for the gold.

When Ainslie sailed into the marina, his happy countrymen hoisted his boat out of the water and carried it ashore, with him still in it. The victory was upheld after both sailors filed protests. Scheidt took the silver.

After moving up to the heavyweight Finn class, Ainslie had another remarkable performance at Athens in 2004. Disqualified from his second-place finish in the second race due to a protest by a French sailor, Ainslie fought back from 19th overall to win the gold.

"It certainly didn't make life easy for myself," Ainslie said. "After the first day of racing I was back in 20th position or something like that after the first two races. It was very disastrous. I think in terms of my performance after the first day, certainly it was the best I've sailed in my career to date. But the Sydney Olympics was very special because it was really a huge challenge taking on Robert Scheidt at that point in our careers, and it was an incredible final race."

Scheidt moved up to the Star class in 2008.

Ainslie's future boss, Russell Coutts of America's Cup champion Oracle Racing, will have a keen interest in the Brit's pursuit of Olympic history.

"I expect him to do it," said Coutts, a New Zealander who won the gold medal in the Finn class at the Los Angeles Olympics before becoming the most dominant skipper in America's Cup history. "Obviously it's not easy, and that's what's so fantastic about this. I think most people say he's a clear favorite to win the gold medal. Something would have to go badly wrong for him not to."

Unlike Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt, sailors can win only one gold medal per Olympics.

"If he pulls this off, he would have four gold medals in four different Olympics, which means four different sets of conditions," Coutts said. "And on top of that, he won a silver medal in Atlanta, which isn't too bad. A lot of people would be very happy with a silver medal."

American Zach Railey, who took the silver behind Ainslie in Beijing four years ago, knows how well-prepared Ainslie will be.

"I think he has a strong desire to reach his goals, a strong desire to win, and you can't teach that," Railey said. "You can't teach people motivation. You can have a lot of talent, and Ben obviously has a lot of talent. Anyone at the Olympic games is going to have talent, but there are a lot of talented people who aren't successful. The reason is, they don't have that inner motivation."

Ainslie isn't sure if this will be his last Olympics.

When these games are over, he'll head to San Francisco for his first competition with Ben Ainslie Racing in the America's Cup World Series. The following summer, he'll sail with Oracle Racing in the 34th America's Cup on San Francisco Bay.

"I've been very fortunate to have some fun in the Olympics and a good career there, but I certainly hope to be able to make a mark in the America's Cup in the future and I look forward to getting involved in that with Oracle Racing," he said.

Ainslie envisions heading a future British challenge for the silver trophy that escaped his country's grasp in 1851, with Queen Victoria watching as the schooner America embarrassed a British fleet in a race around the Isle of Wight.

The Auld Mug has never returned to the mother country's possession.

"You talk about our maritime history, it's a glitch in our history that we've never won the America's Cup," Ainslie said. "It would be fantastic if we could turn that around and bring the Cup back to where it all started. It's certainly a huge ask. But in the past, you look at New Zealand and Australia, they've been able to go out there and be successful, so there's no reason why we couldn't do that in the UK."

First, though, there's the Nelson comparison to live up to.

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