Q&A: ORACLE TEAM USA’S Ben Ainslie

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Ben Ainslie is in an elite class among world-class sailors. In August of last year, he took home his fourth Olympic gold medal, becoming the first person to win sailing medals in five Olympics. Now officially retired from the Olympics, Britain’s most celebrated sailor shows no signs of slowing down. Last year, he launched his own racing team, Ben Ainslie Racing (BAR), with the vision of competing as a challenger in the 35th America’s Cup, and he joined ORACLE TEAM USA to defend the 34th America’s Cup. And in case you missed it, earlier this year, Ainslie was knighted for his services to sailing.

Sir Ben talks with One Medical Group about the importance of cultivating confidence, the best sailing advice he ever received, and doing the right thing. 

How important is it to mentally prepare for competition?

In competition, you’re physically working hard but you need to make very conscious decisions at the same time. Those critical decisions come when you’re working your hardest, so we train to be mentally alert while dealing with physical fatigue.

There’s an old saying that often the race is already won before you start and that the team who wins is the one that’s best prepared. The more you can prepare, the more confidence you’ll build. That will determine if you’re going to race well and be successful.

Who has influenced the way you approach the sport?

One person who’s had a lot of influence over my career is my father. He’s always been a great support. When I was younger he helped me to be a professional, to train in the right way, and have the right attitude toward the sport.

What’s exciting about this year’s competition?

Being involved with Oracle, we’re working on shaping the future of the sport, making it much more commercially viable. We hope to build it up and have a sizable TV audience. That’s exciting!

What’s your take on the new format of the race?

The TV product has improved immeasurably in the last couple years so now people find it fun to watch. Some of the new technology–like the graphics on the screens that help the sailors better understand the wind direction and the boundaries of the course–are also helpful for newer fans to understand the sport.

We also used to sail mono-hulls, which were much slower and more tactical–the multi-hull is about pure speed, which is more like drag racing. That’s been an exciting development both from a competitive standpoint and for viewers.

What’s the best sailing advice you’ve ever gotten?

When I was a kid, I had a coach who instilled in us this ethos that we should never give up, no matter how bad the situation, that we should always give it our best all the way to the end.

So many times in competing or sailing, or even in life, it’s easy to get pissed off and throw the towel in. But if you keep doing everything you can even though it might be dismal, you’ll learn something, somewhere down the line.

What other life lessons have you learned as a professional sailor?

It’s such a small world. Being mindful of the importance of relationships and cultivating people skills–that’s an important lesson, because it’s amazing how things come back around. You never know when you might work with someone again or when you might need a favor or some sort of support.

You’ve said that if you weren’t a sailor, you might be a Formula One driver. Why?

Clearly, that would be a dream. I’m a big Formula One fan.

What is it about the sport that appeals to you?

I think I would’ve loved to have been a racing car driver because it’s similar to sailing. You have to be very focused on what you’re doing and have a good feel for the car–as you do for the boat.

Have you ever driven one of the cars?

No, although I’ve been to some races with teams like MacLaren. It’s pretty cool to go into the pits and see those teams working, especially the way they debrief. There are a lot of similarities to what we do in sailing. There’s a load of technical information that helps inform the designers and the sailors or the drivers of how and where to improve.

What’s the toughest part of training?

The last couple of years, it’s been dealing with injuries. When you have an injury and then get put into rehab, you lose everything you built up over a good period of training. It can be incredibly frustrating. I’m sure any athlete who’s been through a similar situation can relate.

How do you bounce back from setback like that?

The first time I experienced something like that, it was really tough. It happened when I was preparing for the Olympics, with the games six months down the road. It was a very dark moment to be stuck in rehab, in the UK–and in January, when it’s freezing! The experience was depressing and difficult.

But the end of the day, you just have to keep that end goal in mind, and stay positive and strong–there’s nothing else you can really do. It helps to have a good support system.

Did you have any sports idols growing up?

Loads! Pete Sampras, Arton Senna, Paul Elvstron, and in sailing, Russell Coutts.

Is there a common thread among these athletes that was meaningful to you?

Each of them took their particular sport to a new level, whether that was based on training, professionalism, or skill. I admire their personalities, too. I don’t think any of them were showy or cocky or arrogant; they just knew that they were the best. They didn’t have to worry about telling the world that, because it was obvious. They just went on with their job, which I admired.

Have you ever been an underdog?

When I started my Olympic career at the ’96 Olympics, I was only 19 years old. I was very much an unknown, a wild card. That was probably the most fun period because I didn’t have any expectations for myself and no one else had any expectations of me, either.

Since then, I’ve been expected to win or to be performing well. It’s better to be a favorite than not, but at the same time it brings a lot of expectation. Racing alone in the 2012 Olympics was an insane amount of pressure.

What legacy do you hope to leave one day?

It’s been great to be part of a lot of Olympic success in the UK with sailing, and to see how that’s inspired young kids in the UK to get into sport at many different levels.

It would also be fantastic if Britain were to win the America’s Cup because it started there in 1851 and we’ve never won it. We’ve got a proud maritime history as an island, so if we could achieve that, that would be a great legacy to leave.

What kind of life do you hope to have in the future?

I’d like to have a family one day. Hopefully that’s not too far away.

I love sailing, so I’ll always be involved in that some way, whether it’s competing or managing or coaching or advising. I’d also love to do some cruising–I’ve spent my whole life racing, but there are some fantastic spots in the world where it would be great to disappear for a few years and sail around the world, and do some exploring.

Many people consider you a role model. How do you feel about that?

I’m not perfect. I’ve made quite a few mistakes in my time. For instance, there was a situation at the end of 2011 where I’d was taken out of a race by a media boat. I lost my temper and jumped on the boat, and had an argument with the driver of the boat. I think in situations where you haven’t lived up to your own standards, you have to apologize, be honest, and try to do the right thing.

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