His spot in Olympic sailing history secure, Ben Ainslie will now try to become the first Englishman to hoist the America’s Cup in victory.
That would be one silver trophy he’d be eager to accept.
The four-time gold medalist announced his retirement from Olympic sailing early Tuesday, saying it was time to move on to the challenge of trying to end Britain’s long drought in the competition for the oldest trophy in international sports, the America’s Cup.
Ainslie’s decision wasn’t a surprise. While he said he wanted to take some time after winning the gold medal in the Finn class at the London Olympics, he’s already sailed in two America’s Cup World Series regattas with his Ben Ainslie Racing team, finishing second in one of them.
The 35-year-old Ainslie became the most successful Olympic sailor ever when he won his fourth straight gold medal at Weymouth in August. He also won a silver medal at Atlanta in 1996 in his first Olympics.
”When I look back there are so many special memories; from that first medal in Atlanta 16 years ago to carrying the flag at the closing ceremony in London 2012,” Ainslie said in a statement. ”London was an incredibly special Olympics, competing on home waters and in front of a home crowd, I don’t think anything will be able to top that experience. But you have to move forward and it is time to move onto the next challenge in my career.”
Ainslie was so successful as an Olympian that he was called Britain’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, known for an intense focus and work ethic, felt that comparison was hype.
”I didn’t rescue the nation from the depths of Napoleon Bonaparte,” Ainslie said after winning his final Olympic gold. ”You do the best you can do in your style of racing.”
Ainslie was 19 when he took silver in the 1996 Olympics in a bitter loss to Brazil’s Robert 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.
Now his racing shifts to bigger, faster boats.
He’ll skipper his 45-foot wing-sailed catamaran in the remaining regattas in the America’s Cup World Series and then will sail with defending America’s Cup champion Oracle Racing in the 34th America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay in 2013. It’s expected that he’ll helm one of Oracle’s two 72-foot catamarans in the buildup to the America’s Cup match. Oracle suffered a setback when its first 72-foot catamaran capsized on San Francisco Bay in mid-October, destroying its giant wing sail. Oracle’s second 72-foot cat is under construction.
Ainslie’s goal is to then launch a British challenge for the 35th America’s Cup.
Great Britain has never won the America’s Cup, which began in 1851 when the schooner America beat a fleet of British ships around the Isle of Wight.
Ainslie lives in Lymington, across the Solent from the Isle of Wight.
”The America’s Cup has always been a goal for me,” Ainslie said. ”With the new format of the America’s Cup World Series and the increased commercialization of the event, I feel confident that we can continue to build toward creating a commercially viable team, with the ultimate goal of challenging for the 35th America’s Cup.”
John Derbyshire, performance director of the Royal Yachting Association, said Ainslie ”has nothing left to prove in Olympic terms and there can be no question that he’s more than achieved his first goal. It’s therefore entirely understandable that he should now want to turn his attentions to the second, and hopefully lead a British team to win the oldest trophy in sport for the very first time.”