WEYMOUTH, England (AP) — The best sailor in Olympic history has never done it the easy way.
On a heartstopping afternoon on Weymouth Bay, Ben Ainslie had to sweat it out a bit before beginning to celebrate in front of his countrymen who were lining the seashore, cheering and waving the Union Jack.
Ainslie might roll his eyes at being called Britain’s greatest sailor since Admiral Lord Nelson. This much is for sure — he’s the most successful sailor in Olympic history.
After trailing the entire regatta, Ainslie was spot-on with his tactics in the medals race and got a little help in the front of the pack to win the Finn class gold medal on a pleasant Sunday. It’s his fourth straight gold and fifth straight games medal overall, eclipsing Denmark’s Paul Elvstrom, who won four straight gold medals from 1948-60.
Ainslie, the son of a sailor, pumped both fists, then stood up in his dinghy — which he calls Rita — and pumped them again after finishing ninth in the medals race. It was one spot ahead of rival Jonas Hoegh-Christensen of Denmark, who had led since the opening race a week earlier.
A few minutes later, Ainslie did a victorious flyby along the shore, waving his own Union Jack and exhorting the crowd.
Hoegh-Christensen slumped in his boat after finishing last. He took the silver.
“It was always going to be hard. It was the whole way through,” Ainslie said. “That race was certainly one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life, but thankfully I came through.”
Ainslie, 35, went into the medals race trailing Hoegh-Christensen by two points. But because the medals race awarded double points, they essentially were tied. Whoever finished ahead of the other was going to win the gold, provided that Pieter-Jan Postma of the Netherlands didn’t finish too high.
With Ainslie pinning Hoegh-Christensen at the back of the fleet, Postma could have swooped in and won gold. Postma needed to get into third place to spoil Ainslie’s nautical coronation, but he hit the back of New Zealander Dan Slater’s boat and had to do a penalty turn. He finished fifth.
That allowed France’s Jonathan Lobert, who won the medals race, to take the bronze.
Ainslie’s win saved the day for Britain’s strong sailing team.
Sweden’s Fredrik Loof and Max Salminen were the surprise gold medallists in the venerable Star class, leaving defending Olympic champions Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson of Britain with the silver. The Swedes won the medals race and then clinched gold a few minutes later when the British crew finished eighth. The bronze went to Brazil’s Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada, who took silver behind Percy and Simpson in Beijing. Scheidt also has two gold and two silver medals.
The Star has been dropped from the line-up in Rio in 2016, but there’s a lobbying effort to get it reinstated.
Expectations on Ainslie were enormous. He’d rallied before to win Olympic gold and he was sailing in home waters. After Hoegh-Christensen won the first two races and kept finishing ahead of Ainslie, eyebrows arched.
“It’s always hard when people say you’re a dead cert, that you’re expected to win,” Ainslie said. “I knew that wasn’t the case and I tried telling everyone, but no one seemed to listen to me. And then of course when I wasn’t doing that well, then the heat comes on because the expectations are that you will do well. It’s a little bit frustrating, but that’s the nature of being in this position and I had to deal with that and fight back, and I did that.”
And then there was the bit about being called his country’s greatest sailor since Admiral Lord Nelson, who was killed while leading his fleet to victory over the French and Spanish fleets at the Battle of Trafalgar. A statue of Nelson rises high above London’s Trafalgar Square.
Ainslie felt that comparison was hype.
In the Star, Loof finally won gold in his sixth Olympics, to go with two bronzes.
“In the beginning we were just happy for the silver and then the gold come. OK, that’s good!” Loof said. “It’s just huge. It’s like so many years. This is my job and my life. Don’t forget my family; my family first and this has been everything. I love Olympic sailing. I think that’s the peak of sailing.”
Percy, who was trying for his third Olympic gold, said he was “gutted”, but praised the Swedes.