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Last Updated: Monday, 2 July 2007, 22:55 GMT 23:55 UK
Olympic shootout for Athens blondes

By Rob Hodgetts

Sarah Webb (left), Shirley Robertson (centre), Sarah Ayton (right)
We shared a very special moment in time together

Shirley Robertson
Remember the "three blondes in a boat" from the Athens Olympics?

Three years ago the glamorous trio were on top of the world.

But now, Britain's Yngling gold medallists face a tense shootout among themselves.

And at least one of their Olympic careers could sink in the process.

Shirley Robertson, the double Olympic champion and golden girl of British sailing, took time off to have twins after Athens.

While she was away, her former crew Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb launched their own campaign, drafting in Pippa Wilson. The threesome rocketed to fourth in the world.

2-13 July, Cascais, Portugal
1,400 sailors, 76 countries, 11 Olympic classes
96 British competitors
Key Olympic trial event

But Robertson found the lure of a third straight gold too strong and late last year she threw her hat back in the Olympic ring with a new crew of Annie Lush and Lucy Macgregor.

Trouble is, there's only room for one British Yngling team at next year's Games.

And the rival boats will go head-to-head at this week's world championships in Portugal, knowing it's likely to be winner takes all in the battle for Beijing.

With so much at stake, I sought out the two helms Robertson, 38, and Ayton, 27, to get the low-down.

How is the relationship between the three of you now?

We were together for a specific campaign and when we finished in Athens we all had different things we wanted to do with our lives.

Sarah Ayton was back in the Olympic game almost as soon as we stepped off the plane. She had Olympic rings in her eyes.

Sarah Webb (left), Shirley Robertson (centre), Sarah Ayton (right)
There's no animosity, it's just sport

Shirley Robertson

I didn't. I'd been doing it a long time. I needed other things in my life, wanted to sail other boats and be challenged in different directions.

So the split was natural. It was a very intense period and it would be difficult to stay together and stay motivated for such a long period of time. Three people is a very hard dynamic and quite hard to maintain. When we had an end date to focus on that brought an intensity to it.

Now we're competing against each other but we're friendly. We shared a very special moment in time together.

It's like an old lover - you split amicably, knowing you shared some really good times and will always remember them fondly. But life has moved on and it seems such a long time ago. A lot has happened in my life since then and I've probably got a very different outlook, as they do.

There's no animosity, it's just sport.

It's important to have a goal and once that was achieved in Athens, I needed a change.

Shirley Robertson (left) and Sarah Ayton
Shirley is just another competitor now

Sarah Ayton

I thought it would make sense to go back to helming. It was a pretty simple decision for me.

Shirley is just another competitor now, and we treat every competitor in the same way. We're friendly but I'm doing my own thing now.

There is only one slot and it is tough but we're here to do a job.

We're here to win the worlds and we have to remain 100% focused to achieve that.

How are you both feeling going into the world championships?

It's looking a lot better. We've had a rough couple of months and pulled out of a regatta in Holland with technical problems.

Robertson, Ayton and Webb won gold in the Yngling keelboat in Athens
The "Three Blondes in a Boat" won Yngling gold in Athens

But we've had a really good last few weeks. I feel like we're back on form and starting to sail really well as a team.

It's always a rollercoaster - a lot of Olympics are. You always plan for a smooth run but it never seems to work like that.

It's been an intense campaign - we only really started in earnest in November - and we're developing a lot quite quickly. We haven't had a lot of time off and the work ethic has been really high.

Are we where we wanted to be? I think we probably are, but it didn't follow the course I wanted it to.

We won the last European regatta and have had a fantastic year so we're leading the charge.

The Yngling fleet is very strong now, with two gold medallists from the Europe and 470 classes as well as us and Shirley.

We are dominating the class so we need to just continue doing what we're good at, put a good consistent regatta together.

If we start getting involved in games [with Shirley] you miss the basics and that's when you start making mistakes.

Our goal is to come away as world champions. That's all that matters.

Describe your drive to win Olympic gold in Beijing

In some ways I have more drive than ever. My time is really precious. It is a short campaign, because I was pregnant last year, and that gives you the drive to make it happen. I'm very concious of making each day count. That brings an increase in focus, not a decrease.

Shirley Robertson
If I go to China, I'll give it a blimming good shot to win, and I think I know how to do that

Shirley Robertson

Before I started to do really well in sailing my life had become introspective. I had a lot of fourths for a while and I wanted it too much. I didn't have any balance in my life and probably wasn't all that happy.

When I moved to the Isle of Wight I became part of a community, I met my husband and then started to win.

You need that in sailing. If you're too stressed and want it too much, it won't happen. I need to know that whatever happens, life carries on.

I've been to enough Olympics [four, since 1992] and collected enough tracksuits. To just go to Beijing is of no interest to me. To go and have an opportunity to win - that is interesting.

If I go to China, I'll give it a blimming good shot to win, and I think I know how to do that.

When I decided to start helming and I asked Sarah to join me, there was only one goal and that was to win gold in Beijing.

The Olympics is the pinnacle of sport and to win a gold medal shows the world that you're the best at what you do and what you love doing. That's what makes me proud to do it.

Winning gold is addictive and it was a totally amazing experience in Athens.

We won with a race to spare and as we sailed through the finish line my coach Ian Walker put his thumbs up. I still get goose pimples thinking about it now.

Having my own campaign with my girls is absolutely awesome and we want to go and do it again.

Tell us about your respective new crews

Everyone's striving for knowledge all the time and that's nice to be around, particularly Annie - I've never met anyone who just wants to know more and more.

She's 27, an academic and rowed at Cambridge and has a tremendous work ethic. Both girls do, they want to be really good sailors and have really taken the opportunity.

Annie Lush (left), Lucy Macgregor (centre) amd Shirley Robertson (right)
It might be perceived as Shirley Robertson and her crew but we don't see it that way at all

Annie is like the computer on board. Ask her any number or setting and she can remember.

She's got a good brain, a big thirst for knowledge and is very analytical. She's also a tremendous athlete, the most athletic person I've ever sailed with.

A lot of that comes from rowing - she's used to working hard in the gym. She's sometimes frustrated with sailing because you can't just get stuck in and make the boat go faster.

Lucy is only young, she's 20. When I first selected her that was a concern but she's certainly not like me when I was 20.

She has a very even temperament, even if there's a complete mess going on. She never gets rattled and is a very natural sailor, having grown up in Poole Harbour and been around boats all her life.

Because I've had the babies, a lot of the jobs I would have done in the last campaign, they've had to take on and they do so willingly.

My girls are awesome and I'm very lucky to have two such good crew.

Sarah, 30, is really solid, which is the key to success whether it will be the worlds or the Olympics. She's also a physical weapon. She's in the middle of the boat so she has to be really strong and she's the strongest middle in the fleet.
Sarah Ayton (left), Pippa Wilson (centre), Sarah Webb (right)
Our ultimate goal is to be the best team in the world

Sarah Ayton

Pippa is 21, joined us in December last year and has added so much to the team and brought us together. Last year we were finishing in fourths and thirds and she's helped us convert to be on top of the podium.

At the front you need someone who is really dynamic and has got a good feel for the boat.

She's working with me to make the boat go fast and in light winds she is the eyes of the boat.

She also makes us all look good when we turn corners, pulling the spinnaker and gib up and down, and our boat work is absolutely brilliant, the best in the fleet by far.

As a team we all back each other in everything we do and we're all here for the same thing - to win.

It's not just about helm against helm - or Ayton against Robertson - it's about team against team.

Our ultimate goal is to be the best team in the world.

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