Top picks set sail in bid to secure Olympic gold

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With Ben Ainslie headlining the elite group of sailors who will represent Britain at next year’s Olympics, it’s tempting to think the team has pretty much selected itself.

Tempting, but not entirely true.

The first UK athletes to be announced for the 2012 Games were unveiled this week in seven of the 10 Olympic sailing classes, with previous medal winners selected in five of the categories.

In one of the remaining classes, the women’s match racing, the trio of Lucy Macgregor, Annie Lush and Kate Macgregor were the only game in town, albeit a talented one.

And in the 470 women, the new but red-hot pairing of Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark got the nod, meaning disappointment for Lee-on-the-Solent’s Penny Clark and crew Katrina Hughes.

So, a combination of rising talent and established performance, an easy call?

Perhaps, but even Ainslie, Britain’s most successful Olympic sailor by a country mile, had to fight tooth and nail for his place at Weymouth.

If not for the one-place-per-country-per-class-ruling, Britain could have been looking at a clean sweep of the medals in the finn class next year, having four sailors in the top five in the world ranking.

Ainslie, returning to the finn after a two-year absence, had to elbow his way past world champion Ed Wright, among others.

‘I came back last November after a spell with the British America’s Cup team and I knew the pressure would be on to get back to form both physically and tactically,’ said Ainslie.

‘At the first event in Perth, as expected, I struggled.

‘My fitness levels just weren’t up to scratch and I was too light for the boat.’

After a hard winter of training, in which he reportedly put on a stone in weight, Ainslie was back on the qualification trail.

‘After a second place in Miami in January everything came together pretty well.

‘I was sailing the boat well and, physically, I had improved to near to my best form.

‘I probably sailed at my best at the qualification regatta in June (Skandia Sail for Gold).

‘It was one of the hardest events I’ve competed in, and winning there was decisive.’

Elsewhere, the competition was equally tough.

Beijing gold medallist Paul Goodison had to fend off a concerted challenge from Southampton’s Nick Thompson in the laser class.

Bronze-medal winning windsurfers Bryony Shaw and Nick Dempsey both did enough to confirm their class in the qualification rounds, and the all-conquering finn duo of Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson had one hand on their place since winning gold in China.

Qualification is on-going in the final three Olympic classes, which leaves the door open for Portsmouth’s John Pink and Lee-on-the-Solent’s Alain Sign in the 49er class, though in different pairings, and Southampton’s Nic Rogers in the 470 Men.

Top-ranked radial sailor Charlotte Dobson appears set for the final berth.

Britain’s sailors have delivered at recent Olympics, and the omens are good for home waters next year.