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Big Ben rings out - Britain's Ainslie wins Finn gold to become most successful Olympic sailor

08/05/2012 03:38 EDT | Updated 10/05/2012 05:12 EDT
WEYMOUTH, England - 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 lineup 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.

"I didn't rescue the nation from the depths of Napoleon Bonaparte," Ainslie said. "You do the best you can do in your style of racing."

Still, his fourth straight gold medal could lead to knighthood. After he won his third straight gold at Beijing, he was elevated to commander of the British Empire by the royal family.

And being the best Olympic sailor is for real.

"I don't think that will ever settle in," Ainslie said. "It's an amazing thing. But you talk about Paul Elvstrom, I mean, what he did all those years ago really revolutionized sailing. It was an amazing feat."

Ainslie is in his element when things look grim.

Ainslie was 19 when he took silver in 1996 in a bitter loss to Scheidt in the Laser class. Scheidt induced Ainslie into a penalty at the start of the final race and then sailed to gold.

It was the last time Ainslie didn't stand atop the medals podium.

Four years later, Ainslie expertly exacted his revenge on Sydney Harbor to beat Scheidt for the gold.

After moving up to the heavyweight Finn class, Ainslie had another remarkable performance at Athens in 2004. Disqualified from his second-place finish in the second race due to a protest by a French sailor, the British star fought back from 19th overall to win the gold.

"Since obviously it comes down to the crunch, right, and you have to make it count, I've been very lucky in my career that when it's really mattered, I've done that," Ainslie said. "You look back at so many times when it could have gone the other way, yeah, I don't know what that is, but I'm just very thankful to come through this."

In the medals race, Ainslie tried to hunt down the Dane in prestart manoeuvrs but Hoegh-Christensen got away. The Dane made a mistake by picking the wrong side of the course.

"I got ahead and then it was a matter of staying ahead of Jonas," Ainslie said. "But the Dutch sailor, P.J., sailed a great race and got through and was close to taking the gold as well, so it was very nerve-racking."

Shortly after Princess Anne placed the gold medal around his neck and he stood at attention for "God Save The Queen," Ainslie said this was likely it for his Olympic career.

Later this month, he'll begin sailing with Ben Ainslie Racing in the second season of the America's Cup World Series, and then sail with defending champion Oracle Racing in the 34th America's Cup on San Francisco Bay in 2013. He'd like to lead a British crew for the 35th edition of sailing's marquee regatta.

Hoegh-Christensen, who returns to his job with concert promoter Live Nation Denmark, also is likely finished as an Olympian.

"It was a great week, bad day," Hoegh-Christensen said. "No excuses. I did what I wanted to do. Unfortunately, it wasn't enough today."

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.

"These guys are unbelievable competitors," Percy said. "I've known Freddy and raced against Freddy for 20 years. He's one of the nicest guys in the fleet, one of the best sailors in the whole circuit. One of the small things that puts a smile on my face is that he's standing with a gold medal after 20 years of effort. Brilliant guy."

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