Sailings Superstar British sailor Ben Ainslie, the only sailor ever to be crowned ISAF World Sailor of the Year three times (1998, 2002 and 2008), will be 35 years old by the 2012 London Olympics.
He will be sailing at his fifth Olympic Games, aiming to win another gold medal, perhaps weighed down by the British public expectations and media demands with three gold medals and one silver round his neck, sailing in the most physically demanding sailing class.
Ainslie’s long career has been a successful one. In 1993 at age 16, Ainslie won his first World Championship in the Laser Radial World class. He won Olympic Laser silver in 1996 and took the gold medal in Sydney in 2000.
In 2001 the 6-foot sailor switched to Finn class, increasing his bodyweight 15kg to be competitive. He won the Finn World titles in 2002 and Olympic gold in Athens in 2004.
In 2007 he won his fifth Finn class world title, and in Beijing in 2008 despite suffering the after-effects of mumps, Ainslie won his third consecutive Olympic gold medal.
This week Ainslie said to me ‘Having my selection for London 2012 confirmed was a big relief. Since the Weymouth Test Event, I've been working in the gym to keep my muscle weight on. I head out to Perth in the next few days and will have some hard weeks of training ahead.
'The team are really looking forward to ISAF Worlds. Perth is an iconic venue for sailing, and we expect some fantastic sailing breeze at that time of year. It will be a real challenge for all of the sailors and in the strong winds fitness will be critical!'
He is not alone in that belief. Zach Railey, the 6-foot-4 27-year-old Finn sailor from Clearwater, (FLA USA) , who placed second behind Ainslie in Qingdao, believes the Finn world is changing fast and that has increased the challenges.
‘Ben is an incredibly talented sailor, and in Perth 2011 in the medal race, I expect to see the British Finn Team leaders Ainslie, (Giles) Scott and (Ed) Wright, but the Finn fleet is getting deeper and deeper and such a very talented fleet for sure and there are big challenges ahead.
‘There was a big decision with the Finn class that we made last year to switch the free pumping rule from 12 knots to 10 knots and one of the things that all the Finn sailors have found since we had done that is that it has made the boat so much more physical. Now not only is your strength really tested, but your cardiovascular fitness is just absolutely put to the max.
‘I think the new technique, with the sailors standing pumping for much of the down-wind legs, the physicality of the boat has changed, and I think you see guys that are not only strong but are also really fit and tall (for leverage) now with an advantage and this will be even more obvious in stronger conditions.
The veteran New Zealander Finn sailor Dan Slater agrees. ‘I think really Ben knows he is a bit vulnerable in the breeze and there are lots of bigger, taller guys who will make it hard for him.
‘Ed Wright is the current world champion and he loves the breeze. Revels in it. He is 6-foot-4 and probably the fittest guy in the Finn fleet without a shadow of a doubt and he has got brute size, he is 108kg. I would see Ed as being one of the favourites for a place like Perth. Ed’s goal now is to win the World Championships again with Ben in the field.
Edward Wright (GBR) Finn class - 2010 Rolex Miami OCR - © Rolex / Dan Nerney
‘Jonathan Lobert is of similar build. He won silver at the Olympic test event. He sails really quickly in the breeze. He is 6-foot-3. He is not super quick upwind, but downwind he is a machine. He has got a huge reach, so when he pumps his sail, he can almost hold onto the boom and pull it in.
'Netherlands’ Pieter Jan Postma has produced some good form recently, including bronze at Weymouth. He is big strong and fit. He is 104 kilos and just brute strength. He powers upwind and powers downwind and can grunt it out.
'Rafa Trujillo (Spain) would be his fourth Olympics, third in the Finn, after silver in Athens, and probably his last so determined to go out in glory! Over the last decade, Rafa has been the King of the Breeze in the Finn. At 105/107 kilos, he is pretty hard mad to stop. He has been sailing in New Zealand with me in New Zealand for the last two years.
'Denmark’s Jonas Hogh Christensen (double world champion and sixth in Qingdao) is back full time from November after three years off is sure to go well.
'Australia’s Brendan Casey is really fast. He has put in a pretty big effort in the last year. Brendan will go well in Perth; there is a bit of heat on him from Anthony Nossiter (Nocka) and Rob McMillan, who just missed out on the Finn for the British team in 1996.
'Then there is the next generation - Deniss Karpak from Estonia, can win races. He sails with a little bit of risk and when he pulls it off he is famous.
'The Canadian Greg Douglas is another up and comer. He is being coached by Chris Cook, former Canadian Finn sailor, who was really good. Again is of the same build and mould of Giles Scott and the Frenchman Lobert. He is tall, lanky with plenty of hiking leverage. He sails in 96 to 98 kilos bracket but huge leverage. He has been training with Ed Wright and Zach Railey.'
Final words from Slater. ‘At Perth it can blow dogs off chains. It is easy to break a mast coming in and out of the harbour. Silly little things like that, in the windy conditions, your sail blows up while you are trying to change it on the water or something like that, just because of the conditions that the Fremantle Doctor can deliver, and then you have an OCS and all of a sudden you are staring down the barrel of a 30th without having really doing anything that bad.
‘None of us are getting any younger. I am 35, Rafa is 35 as well. Ben is 34. We are probably the three older guys in the Finn Fleet so those really fresh windy regattas are pretty gruelling on the body.
‘All in all there is a high risk management part factor in going to Perth.
‘It’s going to be a very interesting 2011 Finn Gold Cup – World Championship at a very interesting venue.’
Would you bet against Ben Ainslie to win his sixth Finn World title and a fourth Gold Medal in 2012?