x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Robertson no dumb blonde

Shirley Robertson's biggest regret of her sailing career is that she did not get the chance to go for a hat-trick of Olympic gold medals at the Beijing games.

The Scottish Yachtswoman Shirley Robertson won successive gold medals at the Sydney and Athens Olympics in two different classes.
The Scottish Yachtswoman Shirley Robertson won successive gold medals at the Sydney and Athens Olympics in two different classes.

DUBAI // Shirley Robertson's biggest regret as she reduces the intensity of a prolonged sailing career is that she did not get the chance to go for a hat-trick of Olympic gold medals in Beijing last summer. Giving birth to twins in 2006 left her ill-prepared for the British trials and even though she went into the water with all guns blazing in an attempt to make up for lost time, she fell fractionally short of earning the qualification for the Yngling class in which she had triumphed in Athens four years earlier.

"They had the trials really early in Britain and I had just had my kids so I wasn't quite at my best," she reflected. I thought I had earned the right to be given a bit more time but they felt otherwise. "I was quite vocal in my complaints about it at the time. I just didn't see any harm in letting the qualification process run for a few more months, especially as we had been so close. "But that's life. You can't do everything. I certainly wouldn't be without my children to go to the Olympics."

Until those twin babies came along, sailing was Robertson's life and she devoted every minute of her time and every ounce of her effort to fulfilling a lifelong dream to stand on the Olympic podium listening to her national anthem with a gold medal round her neck. "It was a long time coming," she said about that magical moment overlooking Sydney Harbour. "As an Olympic athlete you are never very sure that it is going to come. A lot of people do it and there are not a lot of medals at the end. Especially in a sport like ours.

"So much has to come right on the day and the chances of it not are quite high. There is a kind of rogue element that has to be dealt with. You saw that today as the wind can change so unexpectedly. A lot has to fall into place on the right day." Sydney in 2000 was Robertson's third Olympiad. At 24, was the youngest member of the British team in Barcelona in 1992 but still managed a respectable ninth place in the Europe class for single-handed women sailors.

That learning experience provided her with what she called "a moment of clarity" when she first realised that she was desperate to taste a piece of the action. "Watching that medal ceremony in Barcelona convinced me to do all that it took to be standing there one day," she said. That made her work fervently towards earning a transatlantic trip Atlanta in 1996 but she returned heart-broken and in a state of massive confusion at finishing in the worst possible position of fourth, agonisingly one place out of the medals.

"I thought I would come away with a medal because I had won two World Championship silver medals in the intervening years," she recalled. "I was desperately disappointed when I didn't get one. "Perhaps I wanted it too much because I was really nervous at the time and it affected my performance. "It was so important to me. It was my whole life. I didn't do anything else." Robertson remembers sitting almost paralysed in her car immediately after her flight home wondering what she was going to do next.

"I was at Gatwick [London] airport in the rain with the windscreen wipers on and the engine running but not being able to drive away. I felt myself wondering how to move forward. What to do, where to go, if I wanted to do it again. "It was one of the worst moments of my life. It was definitely a winter of post-Olympic depression." The bitter experience inspired Robertson to take a different mental approach and seek greater variety in what she did on the high seas and that re-think produced the richest of rewards four years later. "What a feeling," she said. "I had a beaming smile that lasted for days when I got that gold."

She then decided to broaden her horizons for Athens and teamed up with Sarah Ayton and Sarah Webb to form what British pundits labelled "Three Blondes in a Boat" to challenge for multi-hull Yngling honours. She said the three of them did not mind the tagline, but they were all aware that they had to complete the job to ward off any "dumb blondes" follow-up. "Thankfully we justified the optimism the country had in us," she concluded.

"That second gold brought more of a feeling of relief than the first one which brought me unbridled joy. The second gold was more expected, but we still had to deliver and I'm delighted that we did." wjohnson@thenational.ae