After a week of little or no wind, Qingdao finally came good for the first set of Medal Races today. With the breeze blowing a thankfully uncharacteristic 15-17 knots, it was a great day for the Brits, and a pretty good one for the Aussies too.
Despite a poor Medal Race for Ben Ainslie, the reigning Olympic Champion picked up right where he left off exactly a year ago, defending his Pre-Olympic title with relative ease. Ainslie went into the final with an 11-point lead over Croatian Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic, but found himself way down the fleet when he recrossed the start line thinking he had jumped the gun.
The Croatian at one stage managed to get enough places between him and the Ainslie to wrest the overall lead away from the Brit, but was overtaken on the final downwind leg and then capsized 100 metres from the finish line to end all hopes of a coup. Ainslie finished the medal race in seventh place but it was enough to hand him the gold – his second in Qingdao in what is his first Olympic classes regatta since the 2006 Test Event last August.
“I did a pretty good job of losing it out there today!” Ainslie admitted. “I had a terrible start but luckily I was able to dig deep and get back a few places. With it being only my first race in the Finn in a year I wasn’t really sure what to expect coming here, but I’ve been very happy with my performance this week. I’m sailing pretty well right now, but still have a great deal of room for improvement.”
Stevie Morrison and Ben Rhodes added Pre-Olympic gold to their World and European titles, although like Ainslie they too made a pretty good attempt at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory. The Exmouth duo were in eighth place and out of the medal positions when they rounded the windward mark for the final time in today’s medal race.
But on the final downwind leg they managed to pick up four places – with a little bit of help from several of their competitors who capsized – and finished the medal race in fourth place, which was enough to hand them the gold by one point, ahead of reigning Olympic Champions Iker Martinez and Xabi Fernandez.
“We had a rough day today – there was a lot of wind out there,” said Morrison. “Several teams capsized during the race, but we managed to hold on to take the overall lead. We’ve made a fair few mistakes in this competition, so are a little bit surprised that we came out on top, but it’s really great to have won back to back golds at major events, and hopefully this is a good sign ahead of the Olympics next year.”
Skandia Team GBR also grabbed gold in the Women's RS-X division, thanks to a superlative performance by Bryony Shaw, and it was silver in the Men's 470 for Nick Rogers and Joe Glanfield. So, three golds and one silver for the Brits, and two more Brits in pole position for their Medal Races tomorrow. Australia took gold in both Men's and Women's 470 classes, and silver in the Tornado and bronze in the Women's RS-X. Robert Scheidt and Bruno Prada surfed their way to victory in the Star class, earning a gold for Brazil.
No surprises in the Tornado, with light-wind experts and double Olympic Champions Roman Hagara and Hans-Peter Steinacher winning the cat class from Darren Bundock and Glenn Ashby. The Austrians will start as favourite for the Olympic title this time next year - IF they qualify for the Games. Finishing 20th in the recent windy Worlds in Cascais, they have yet to secure a spot in the Olympics for Austria. The Tornado Worlds in New Zealand early next year give them a final opportunity to qualify for Qingdao. It's unthinkable that they won't achieve that, but stranger things have happened at sea.