Having re-established themselves as the top sailing nation at Rio 2016, Sir Ben Ainslie believes the aim for Great Britain is to now ensure the production line of Olympic champions continues at pace on the water.
Golds for Giles Scott in the Finn class and Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark in the women’s 470, plus silver for windsurfer Nick Dempsey, ensured Team GB met their Rio medal target.
It also meant they were the best performing nation in Rio, turning the tables on four years ago in London where they were third behind Australia and Spain.
“I think British sailing is in a great place,” said Ainslie.
“We’ve traditionally been one of the top nations at the Olympics. Apart from unfortunately London 2012, the three previous cycles before that we’d been the top nation and we were actually the top nation in Rio.
“So I think that’s a huge success and credit to the Royal Yachting Association, which is our governing body, and their Olympic programme.”
Someone with as much experience as Ainslie – Great Britain’s most successful sailor in Olympic history with four golds and one silver – will be acutely aware however, that getting to the front of the pack is only half the battle, staying there is a whole new challenge.
Team GB’s Rio tally of three medals was in fact one short of their total from London 2012, and it was only at the lower end of the medal target of between three and six podium finishes.
However, time is on the team’s side with nine of the 15 British sailors who took to the waters in Rio making their Olympic Games debut, while the average age was a touch short of 30 – a year younger than Ainslie was when he won the third of four Olympic golds.
And the now 39-year-old believes inspiring and encouraging that steady stream of up and coming stars – all the way down to grassroots level – is essential for the sport, as well as the right financial backing.
“In Britain we’ve traditionally always had a very strong youth team and I think that is then led through to the senior team,” he said.
“Giles Scott is obviously one who won gold in Rio, he’s a key part of our Americas Cup team, so he’s a huge talent.
“And then Hannah Mills as well, who came through after a silver in London, got the gold with Saskia Clark in Rio, and is certainly young enough to keep going through to Tokyo.
“I think, like always, we need to keep evolving and making sure that we have the right standard of coaching and the facilities.
“Lottery funding has been really key to that in the last ten to 15 years, not just in sailing but across all sports, and it’s really key that we continue that funding.
“To my mind it’s absolutely critical you continue to be a successful nation at Olympic level because those Giles Scott’s and Mo Farah’s and Adam Peaty’s, these people are inspiring the next generation of school kids to come through and train to be at the top of their sport.”
At 36, Olympic champion Clark was the oldest among the squad, although her partner Mills was a great deal younger at 28 with fellow British gold medallist Scott, 29.
All three have been shortlisted for the prestigious 2016 World Sailor of the Year Award, with the winners announced on November 8.
Ainslie has a particularly close relationship with Scott, beating him to selection for London 2012 and winning gold, before the young pretender took up the mantle following his rival’s retirement to continue Britain’s dominance of the Finn class with gold himself in Rio.
The two are now teammates with Ainslie recognising Scott’s talents and asking him to join the Land Rover Ben Ainslie Racing team, which hopes to challenge America’s Cup defending champions Oracle Team USA, next June.
“Giles is incredibly fit, he’s a great athlete,” added Ainslie, who was talking at the launch of the 1851 Trust’s new digital education programme BT STEM Crew, earlier this week.
“He’s a really good tactical sailor and has great maturity for his age and that’s his role in our boat in terms of trying to make some of those key tactical decisions.
“You see a lot of Olympic sports people, they have this incredible focus that most other sportspeople don’t have because an Olympic cycle is every four years, you have to be very good at keeping your mind focused on that goal of four years.
“A lot of other sports you might compete week-in week-out or on an annual basis; the Olympics you only get that shot every four years so you have to be very focused, much more so than in a lot of other sports, and Giles again brings that to our team.”