Interviews

OxStu meets: Sir Ben Ainslie

Richard Foord talks to the most successful Olympic sailor in the history of the sport

The British public were spoiled for sporting heroes in the wake of London 2012. However, Sir Ben Ainslie stands out amongst them as a sportsman who had come to dominate his discipline for over a decade.

Ben retired from Olympic sailing after the 2012 Games. He couldn’t have planned his Olympic swansong better: “Racing that final race with tens of thousands of people 100 metres away screaming and cheering you on, it was amazing, for the first time in my life I had some idea of what it must be like to be a professional footballer.”

His most recent success came in the form of Americas Cup glory as part of Team Oracle in San Francisco. Sharing that success with a team was particularly satisfying: “To go through that comeback and that victory with that group of guys was the most rewarding sporting experience I think I’ve ever had. When you do something on your own you live and die by your own actions, but to do it with a group of people was amazing. You often hear about rugby teams sharing a moment that they’ll talk about together 20 years down the line.  I think that’s similar to what we achieved, we’ll always have that shared knowledge.”

Despite retiring from the Olympic arena, the prospect of stopping competitive sailing altogether is a long way off: “The Americas cup is really the focus now. I think I really have 10 years at that level, because the role I do there isn’t normally as physical as some of the other roles so I can get away with it. After that who knows?”

He also isn’t ruling out the possibility of competing in longer distance racing: “I love ocean racing, my father sailed in the first Whitbread round the world race. I’ve done a bit of offshore racing in the past and have a few friends that did the Volvo ocean race, that’s something I might be interested in doing in the future.  The one offshore challenge that really stands out for me is the Jules Verne record, which is a non-stop around the world race, the record currently stands at 45 days. That’s something that has caught my imagination recently.”

Once the day finally comes where Ben does stop competing he can see himself remaining in the sport in some capacity: “I would like to put something back in once I stop competing, whether that’s coaching or mentoring or in an administrative role. I don’t know. I have a huge amount of respect for Steve Redgrave, what he achieved is still the most outstanding Olympic achievement, even with Chris Hoy and others. I also really admire what Seb Coe has done and the career that he has set up for himself. That’s something that is quite appealing. It’s hard to plan for when you’re still competing though.”

It strikes me the extent to which Ben is tuned into the positive effect that prominent role models can have within the world of sport “I’m naturally quite a private person, but at the same time it’s important to be a good ambassador. It’s good in terms of trying to build up a brand and teams and sponsors and that type of thing, it’s important to try and perform my public role well. One of the biggest thrills about this Americas  Cup is the fact that people are excited about watching sailing. Sometimes it’s been hard being a sailor, doing past Olympics when people don’t really understand the sport; that can be a little frustrating at times. I think for our sport it’s fantastic.”

Posterity may eventually gloss over the finer details of Ben’s successes, however it’s important to remember how hard he was made to fight for past victories. On the path to Americas Cup victory Team Oracle won eight races in a row to overhaul an 8-1 deficit. Similarly, to secure Olympic Gold in 2012 he had to usurp the Dane Hogh-Christensen who he trailed for much of the competition: “I’d be lying if I said I never once doubted myself. You go through moments where you’re like ‘this isn’t looking very good’ and you really need to pull something out of the bag here. But it’s good to have that conversation with yourself and. You realise that you have to keep going, and ultimately, to get back into the event you have to work hard.”

It’s this mental toughness that Ben singles out as the one quality that sets the very best apart from the rest: ‘I’ve thought about it a lot. There are many really talented people in this world; I think the difference just comes down to how much you really want it and how hard you are prepared to work for something. You’ve got to be smart about that, there’s no point going and running 20 miles a day and pounding weights in the gym non stop, you’ve got to do it in the right way. Sports psychology is pretty powerful, I remember when I was a kid and they used to bring in sports psychologists and you just used to laugh at it all. Of course, as you get older you realise that it really is the key to everything.  You have to be very honest. One of the things I’ve noticed a lot about people who are good but then don’t quite make is that they always have an excuse for something that goes wrong, it’s never really their fault. I think if you’re honest and say ‘Ok well I did make a mistake’, then that goes a long way.”

When Ben isn’t competing he has a particular passion that he likes to indulge…sailing: ‘Oddly enough, I quite enjoy sailing, as a pastime, outside of racing, just having a nice time on the water with friends and family. I’ve been learning to fly for quite a while as well. It’s ridiculous, I’ve been so busy I haven’t been able to take that up in the last year or so, but I got stuck into that for a while which was great fun.”

Understandably perhaps, he finds it difficult to imagine himself living his life in any other way than he currently is: “I honestly don’t know what I would be doing if I wasn’t a sailor. When I was at school I wanted to be in the Navy, and then when I was at college I wanted to be sailor, as in a racing sailor. Actually, I’d love to be a Formula One racing driver.”

We can also take some comfort in the knowledge that there is something that Ben can’t do particularly well: “I like playing golf. My handicap’s absolutely awful. I was at a charity golf match recently; the guy that won it actually said ‘this is the best day of my life, because I’ve beaten Ben Ainslie’. He was much better than me.”

 

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