by Ben Ainslie
Trofeo SAR Princesa Sofia Mapre kicks off today 31st March with racing starting on Monday 2nd April. British sailor and three-times Olympic gold medalist Ben Ainslie discusses returning to competition after his back operation:
Ben Ainslie has been working hard in the gym to regain muscle mass after surgery to decompress the nerve route in his back
I cannot tell you how good it feels to be back on the water, preparing for a competitive event. This coming week’s Trofeo Princesa Sofia in Majorca, one of the regular fixtures on the ISAF World Cup calendar, will be my first regatta since the World Championships in Perth last December and I am champing at the bit.
They say you do not appreciate what you have got until it is gone and for me that was definitely the case in January and February.
In fact it is no exaggeration to say the five or six weeks after my back operation, with the Royal Yachting Association tribunal regarding my disqualification from Perth also hanging over me, were the darkest of my life.
A lot of doubts crept into my mind, doubts you do not want to be having during an Olympic year.
Initially everything went so well. The decision to operate had been forced on me really — we had tried a spinal epidural but that hadn’t really worked because the area was so compacted the steroid couldn’t get into it.
With regular physio and rehab, it might have sorted itself out in six to 12 months. But I didn’t have that time and, in any case, it might have got worse.
So it was only a couple of days from taking the decision to being in hospital.
I can remember lying there, in an NHS ward with all these old guys around me moaning and groaning, almost chuckling to myself, thinking 'can this really be happening?
I am supposed to be racing in a home Olympics in six months' time'. But the doctor did a great job and afterwards I was totally pain-free.
Within a week I was walking and within 10 days I was running. I guess that was the problem because mentally I felt I was fixed and could step it up.
It must have been two or three weeks after the operation, as I was getting back into some light weights, that I overdid it. I woke up the next day and I had really bad pain in my back. Things started to go downhill from there.
It felt like I was going backwards. I was doing all this rehab, the back was painful; it was cold, dark and wet outside and I was annoyed with myself that I had pushed it too hard. I guess I was panicking a little bit.
I was just doing these tiny weights, very low stress exercises, which weren’t getting me any fitter.
All I could think about was my opposition training at full tilt and here I was, in pain, maybe even getting worse, with all these different opinions as to what I should or shouldn’t be doing.
On top of that I had the RYA tribunal looming. I was always hopeful that they would consider my disqualification punishment enough, but all the same I had to prepare myself for the worst. It was a very stressful time.
In fact, it was about the same time as that excellent BBC documentary on depression, to which I could relate in many ways. Not so much in terms of my rehab but past experiences with loss of form and doubt. Professional sport can be a lonely business and you need a strong support team around you.
Thankfully I have one and towards the end of February we started seeing some good gains with the rehab, which was a relief. Then we got out here and the first day of sailing, after three months out of a boat, also went well, which was another big moment.
Since then things have been looking up. I have been training hard on and off the water, doing much more cycling than I did before as it is less stress on the joints, and that has been a joy in the hills around Palma.
I have had to hit the weights a fair amount because I am trying to put muscle mass back on — I need to be well above my natural weight to compete in the Finn class — and there are still some exercises which I’ll never do again; aggressive squat exercises and so on.
But all in all I am positive things are back on track. It may even have been a blessing in disguise. My motivation levels, for instance, are at an all-time high.
When you come through a dark period like that it makes you appreciate much more being out there, being able to train freely, and in terms of volume I am probably training harder than I ever have.
As for next week, I will be looking to compete hard as always. I wouldn’t have entered if I wasn’t comfortable that I could get a good result. I do need to keep an eye on the back, particularly if the winds get up, but it doesn’t usually blow too hard here. I am just excited to be back racing again.
Ben Ainslie website
Trofeo SAR Princesa Sofia website