Your father was a renowned sailor, did he inspire you?
To be honest my sister and I didn’t really have a choice because it was a recreational family holiday thing. Then when I was about 10 years old I got given a small dinghy and that’s really how it took off. My parents were always really supportive and I’m sure that’s made the biggest difference.
Was there a moment when you were on the water and you thought, ‘this is what I want to do’?
It was a slow process, as a kid I wasn’t thinking about sailing as a profession or a career, I just loved doing it and loved competing. Then when I was 18 I qualified for the 1996 Olympics, so I suppose that was the turning point when I thought I could race seriously as a career.
Were your friends supportive?
Not really, sailing has come a long way in the last 10–15 years, but back then it wasn’t cool. It wasn’t really something that I got much support from them for, though they did give me more respect when I won a World Championship in New Zealand at 15 years old.
You won your first Olympic medal at 19, have you always been competitive in your general life?
Yes, though more so with sailing. I wasn’t a great football player or rugby player – the best I did was make the school cricket team ¬– so because sailing was the one thing I was good at it spurred me on to try and be really successful. I was hugely competitive when I was competing at a young age, probably too much so!
Do you think that competitive streak is something a lot of children lack?
I do, I think it’s a huge responsibility for parents, because if they’re not supportive enough or are too overbearing, it can have a really negative affect on a child’s involvement in sport. It’s a fine balance – they need to still enjoy what they’re doing. My parents were great, the only thing they ever asked of me was that if they were going to support me then I wouldn’t mess around and would care about what I was doing. For me that was never a question anyway, so it was a pretty good deal. I was never under pressure to get results.
You’ve had to sail tactically in many of your races, most notably at the Sydney Olympics against Robert Scheidt, did that come naturally to you?
I’ve always been quite a tough sailor; when I’m on the water and racing I don’t care about anything else other than winning. There was no question about difficult tactical situations or being really aggressive, to me that was what was needed to win so I didn’t worry about it. I’m not the type to settle for second place.
How has your sailing style changed through your career?
I’m much calmer than I used to be and probably a little more consistent, so I’m better at controlling myself and not making such rash decisions and gambling everything away.
You won your third Olympic Gold medal in Beijing while suffering from mumps, was it pure determination that kept you going?
It was a real shock, it was three days before I was due to race and I woke up in the morning with a swollen face. All my teammates were laughing at me, calling me Alvin out of The Chipmunks! The doctor put me in isolation and I couldn’t do any training for the next couple of days which so frustrating. I was fortunate that the first two or three days of racing was very light wind so physically it wasn’t too bad, and I’d recovered a bit by the final day when there were really strong wind conditions that required a lot of fitness.
Are you looking forward to competing in the home waters at the 2012 Olympics?
Absolutely, it’s a once in a lifetime opportunity, it really is. Just to race in the Olympics itself is fantastic, but to do that at home is really very special.
What does your Olympic training involve?
At the moment, not a lot because I’m concentrating on The America’s Cup, but I’m still working hard on the fitness side of things and I’ve been doing some design and technical work for the Finn – which is the boat I sail in the Olympics, then I’ll get back into sailing next year. Normally it’ll be an 18-month build-up – a typical training day is to try and do aerobic training in the morning, then work on the boat, and then some training on the water for anywhere between two to five hours, then go to the gym and do a weights session. It’s an intensive sport.
Do you follow a specific diet as well?
I do when I’m sailing a Finn because the size I am now is really too small, I need to be about 10 kilos heavier when I’m racing. It’s not as much fun as everyone would think though, it’s not all cakes and pies but lots of protein shakes, you’re supposed to gain muscle not fat.
What made you decide to race in bigger vessels as well as small boats?
It’s a goal I’ve had since I was a kid – to sail in the America’s Cup and the Olympics because they always seemed like the pinnacle of the sport. Sailing is fantastic because it’s so diverse – there are so many different challenges that involve all different classes of boats. I’ve had a great Olympic career so far, and I’ve been very fortunate with that, but the America’s Cup is something I’ve yet to really grasp and yet to get to the top of, so I’m working hard to get there.
What do you think of critics that question your decision to do both?
So far I’ve managed to do both successfully – I did the last America’s Cup with Team New Zealand and we won the Challenger Series then narrowly missed out to the Swiss in the final, and then obviously I went on to do well in dinghy sailing in Beijing last year. It is going to be harder at the next Olympics though because there’s more competition for the British place with a few new faces, and I’m not getting any younger. But I still think it’s possible and that’s something I’ve got to weigh up. Either way I’m certainly not in the habit of going out and doing something if I don’t think I can win it.
Sailing can be a dangerous sport, have you ever had any close escapes?
I’ve had a few interesting moments offshore racing, either because of the conditions or something’s gone wrong and the situation has got quite precarious, but it happens and you just have to try and deal with it as best you can. When you’re racing, you push 100 per cent and when you’re inshore that’s fine because if something goes wrong it’s not the end of the world. But with ocean racing it’s about knowing when to back off, because you’re a thousand miles out of sight of land and it’s dangerous if someone gets hurt. It’s about knowing the limits.
I presume you’ve had a few injuries as well?
I’ve actually been really lucky, the worst injury I’ve had was breaking a bone in my ankle when I twisted it, and that was purely from jumping from a big America’s Cup boat into a support boat and rolling over on it, a pretty disappointing story really! I did nearly break my arm when we did a Transatlantic crossing last year with Richard Branson though – I got it caught on one of the sails as we were furling it up, and it was going round and round, getting tighter and tighter. Fortunately the guys on the winches realised and stopped, but that was scary at the time.
Why do you think sailing has less exposure in this country than other sports?
All sports suffer because of the fascination with football, which is understandable; it’s a great sport with a great league in the UK. The profile of sailing has actually come a huge way in the last 10 years, with Olympic successes and people like Ellen MacArthur who have gone out and done fantastic things in offshore racing, and we just have to keep trying to be successful for continued exposure. Sometimes it’s a bit frustrating, for example at the Beijing Olympic Games sailing was actually more successful than cycling in terms of the number of medals available, but all the media concentrated on how amazing cycling was.
How do you think the profile of sailing can be raised in the run up to the London Olympics?
As a team we’re managed by the Royal Yachting Association, which is our sports governing body, and they work really hard to bring in sponsors and to promote the team and work on our profile. But the important thing at the end of the day, as it is for most sports, is getting results. You can sell yourself and tell everyone how great you are but the important thing is to keep winning.
There’s obviously been a lot of criticism about the cost of the games, what are your thoughts on that? Do you think it will be a great thing for the country?
Absolutely, but most importantly it’s really about how Londoners embrace the Games, because they’re going to be a deciding factor as to whether they’re a success or not. I’ve been fortunate to go to four Games now, and for an athlete turning up it’s been about the atmosphere. Certainly Sydney was the best Games that I’ve been to in that respect, and there’s a classic comparison between Sydney and London, both reasonably wealthy cities. Exactly the same happened there – in the years to the build-up everyone was complaining about money, about the fact their parks were being taken over for a venue so they couldn’t walk their dogs there and so on, then about two months before the Olympics started they suddenly realised this amazing event was coming to town and the atmosphere was incredible. Sydney really embraced it, there were so many volunteers, people just wanted to be involved in the games and loved it. If you look back to England in Euro ’96, and the carnival atmosphere we had, if that’s recreated then it could just be so special. Of course it is a huge amount of money, and it’s even more shocking in a global economic crisis, but if it’s managed properly and creates a legacy of facilities for future generations, then it’ll be fantastic.
Last year you were voted Yachtsman of the Year for the third year in a row, did you ever dream of such accolades?
No, those things are fantastic and it’s a real honour to receive awards like that but it’s not something I expect, it’s just a great thing to add on to the back of successes.
What advice would you give anyone who’s looking to get into sailing or trying it for the first time?
There’s definitely a misconception with sailing that it’s hard to get into and hugely expensive, but at an amateur level it’s the same as a lot of sports, you can pick up a second hand dinghy for £100. At most sailing clubs you can just become a member and start sailing with someone. They have great beginner courses and coaching, and it’s a social, accessible sport for all levels.
Do you think schools in the UK do enough to encourage children into sports at a young age, or could they do more?
No, they really need to do more, it’s about making sports fun. I was lucky because I went to a school that was very active in sport, but for a lot of my friends sport was just something in the timetable that they had to do. I spend a lot of time in Australia and New Zealand where they’re sports mad and there’s a culture about working as a team and being successful, and we could do with that in the UK. There’s a great initiative at the sailing club in Lymington, every Wednesday all the local school kids can use the club boats free of charge, they just go charging around the river. I get involved in that if I’m around, which is good fun. It would be good to see more initiatives like that around the country.
Do you think succeeding as a professional sports person is as much about mentality as it is talent?
Oh yes, talent is obviously important, but it’s about being focused and organised and all of those extra attributes.
What do you love most about sailing?
The freedom it brings, I love the fact it’s such a diverse sport with so many challenges. One year I could be trying to compete in a race on my own sailing in a 14ft dinghy, then the next year I could be racing with 17 guys on an America’s Cup boat where it’s all about teamwork, design and management, that’s what I really love about it.
Where’s your favourite place to sail in Britain?
Falmouth, which is where I grew up and learnt to sail.
In the world?
What would you say has been your greatest challenge?
Definitely the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.
Have you had to make any sacrifices in your career?
Yes, on a personal level, not being at home that much with family and friends is a sacrifice, but the flip side is I get to travel a lot and do what I love doing, so I can’t complain too much about it.
Have you ever considered quitting?
No, but that doesn’t mean that there haven’t been some hard times when things haven’t been going well and it’s been really difficult, but you just have to keep your head down and keep plugging away.
You’re officially Britain’s most successful sailor ever, how does that feel?
It’s a great feeling to be able to say that. But to me what’s really important what I’m working towards now and in the future. I certainly don’t want to sit around dreaming about the past, I want to keep moving forward, setting new goals and trying to be successful.
How do you keep your feet on the ground?
I don’t know if I do! Though I suppose it’s just about always having something to work towards – sailing is a pretty time-intensive sport so when you’re actually going for something you don’t get distracted. The hardest thing about the last 12 to 18 months since Beijing has been that we were supposed to work towards the America’s Cup and then it got delayed, I’ve been a bit of a lost soul.
Do you still go sailing just for pleasure?
Definitely, I’ve been on a lot of sailing holidays where I’m just cruising around. That’s what I really love to be honest, much more than racing, because you can actually enjoy being in the water cruising along, having a beer, just chilling out and relaxing.
What’s been your proudest moment so far?
In Beijing, winning my third Olympic gold in a row.
Do you take your own boat to the Olympics?
I do, the boat I used in Beijing was the same I used in Athens, it means you can work on developing your boat so it’s different and personalised.
Do you have a dream boat?
I love designer boats called Howick, which are cruising boats, they’re modern build but they’re classic looking. They’re really beautiful boats and I guess it’s maybe my dream to one day own one of those.
What’s the boat’s name?
Rita, all my boats are called Rita. It’s a secret, but it’s got something to do with my mother. They all seem to go all right as Rita, so I keep calling them Rita.
What are your future goals?
The 2012 Olympics and the America’s Cup are the two big ones in the foreseeable future, but also I’d love to do the Volvo Ocean Race – that’s the race my dad did back in ’73 when it was called the Whitbread race. Also I’d like to have a go at the Jules Verne record – it’s the fastest circumnavigation of the world non-stop with a crew. So I’ve got plenty more to do!