Fires of '96 still burn bright inside killer Ainslie after fourth sailing gold medal
21:41 GMT, 5 August 2012
The first time I came face to face with Ben Ainslie was on a pontoon on the north side of Wassaw Sound where the Wilmington River at Savannah, Georgia flows into the Atlantic Ocean.
The year was 1996, the temperature was 105˚F and 19-year-old Ainslie was even hotter having just been denied Olympic gold by the devious tactics of wily Brazilian Robert Scheidt.
The conversation was brief. Despite becoming the youngest British sailor in history to win an Olympic medal, Ainslie was angry and I was suffering from hangover-induced heatstroke made worse by the fact that my early-morning flight from Atlanta had not been for silver. And the time difference meant I had to ad-lib a story about a sport as alien to me as the bug-infested surroundings.
Simply the best: Ben Ainslie celebrates his fourth successive Olympic gold medal
But you could see that the fire in the teenager’s eyes matched the fire in his belly.
His father, Rod, a round-the-world yachtsman of considerable repute, declared with defiance: ‘Ben will win gold in 2000. No question.’
The proud parent described as ‘money well spent’ the selling of the family home and an investment of 25,000 into the Atlanta campaign. National Lottery money had not yet come on stream and sponsorship for sailors did not exist.
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He who flares, wins: Ainslie came from behind to win the title on on the final day in the medal race
Sir Roger Bannister may not have liked it, accusing the Englishman of unsportsmanlike behaviour. And back in Brazil the boys burned effigies of Ainslie for the treatment of a national hero.
We knew then that here was a rare talent who could combine his sailing skills and sixth sense for those vital changes of wind direction with a ruthlessness, a fierce competitiveness and a steely nerve ideally suited for winning Olympic titles.
We knew, too, that this still shy, apparently quiet individual off the water, albeit with a penchant for the odd wild night out, was a killer on the water, a veritable orca of the fleet.
‘If it comes down to a medal race between Ben and another boat, Ben will kill him. Bet your house on it. Bet your mate’s house on it. In fact, bet the nation’s house on it. He will just annihilate anybody else that he has got to beat. You just don’t want to be in the boat that is going to stand between Ben and a gold medal. He will absolutely drill him.’ The words came from Stephen Park, Team GB sailing manager, and they were said during the Games in Beijing four years ago. But they could have come here in Weymouth last week or in Athens in 2004, when he won his first Finn class gold.
Rivals: Denmark's Jonas Hogh-Christensen, Ben Ainslie and France's Jonathan Lobert
Not even the algae, the dragon flies or the lack of wind could becalm Ainslie in Qingdao as he won his third gold medal.
‘Are you Superman or from another planet’ a representative of the Chinese News Agency probed. As usual in such circumstances, he smiled before replying: ‘Thanks for that. As far as I know, I’m human.’
The next day he told me almost gleefully that he celebrated long and hard and could not remember how he ended up on a flash yacht at 5am.
He is human alright.
There was genuine humanity when learning in the minutes before his race that his great friends Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson had just lost gold in the Star and taken silver.
‘I was really upset,’ he said.
Not so upset that he would be diverted from his goal. The fire still burns brightly.