British sailing star Ainslie man to beat in Finn

Aug. 08, 2008, 8:09 a.m. (ET)

QINGDAO, China (AP) Three-time Olympic medalist Ben Ainslie of Britain is such a one-man sailing superpower that two of his Finn class rivals have even formed an American-Danish alliance in hopes of restoring the balance of power.

Olympic sailing kicks off Saturday with the first of 11 races for the Finn one-man dinghies and for the three-woman Yngling class, expected to be a hot battle between the American and British teams. In all, there are 11 sailing classes, with races scheduled to last through Aug. 21, often in difficult conditions with light winds and strong currents.

Seemingly unbeatable Ainslie is clearly a superstar in Qingdao, the Olympic sailing venue about 500 kilometers (300 miles) south of Beijing, the Chinese capital that is the main venue of the 2008 Summer Games.

While he is the undisputed Finn favorite, most expect a close race between the British favorites, Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson, and the U.S. boat, with Sally Barkow, Carrie Howe and Debbie Capozzi aboard their Ynglings.

Ainslie, 31, is after his fourth Olympic medal, with silver in 1996 and gold in 2000 in the Laser class, followed by gold in the Finn class in 2004. Ainslie hasn't lost a Finn class race since 2004, although for the past year his time has been devoted mainly to helming Britain's Team Origin entry in the America's Cup.

"I found it relatively easy to get back into the boat," said Ainslie in an interview posted by the International Finn Class Association on Friday.

American Zach Railey, 24, and world No. 1 ranked Jonas Hoegh-Christensen, 27, and the rest of the Finn class, are doing all they can to make sure defending gold will be anything but easy for Ainslie.

"Ben is expected to be the best. Anything but gold for him would be a catastrophe," Hoegh-Christensen told the AP on Friday. "He's a very talented and competitive sailor."

The American and the Dane formed a training partnership late last year, racing against each other in practice, honing their skills and equipment to close the gap to Ainslie.

"Boat on boat training allows us to test different techniques and equipment," Railey said. "But what works for Jonas might not work for me."

The Hoegh-Christensen and Railey training partnership came about because they both had been coached by Kenneth Andreasen, a Dane, in the Optimist dinghies often used by children when they start racing. Andreasen coached Hoegh-Christensen from 1991 to 1994, and then trained Railey in the Optimists from 1994 to 98.

"Zach was looking a Finn coach. He had worked with Kenneth and liked him. I suggested calling to see if he was interested," said Hoegh-Christensen. Andreasen was, and started coaching Railey two years ago. He now helps them work out together on the water.

"It turned out to be a really good fit ... I helped out Zach at his Olympic trials," said Hoegh-Christensen.

Since each country is only allowed one boat per class for the Olympics, Railey said both of them had trouble finding a top-notch sparring partner at home.

"It has made them both better, and the distance to Ben is less. On a good day, they can beat him," said Andreasen. He said sailors from different countries often practice against each other long before events, but seldom stick together so long.

By racing each other, they can test sails, masts, weight position and techniques against each other in otherwise identical conditions, raising the level of both.

Railey said he admires Ainslie, who seems to win every time he step aboard a boat, even when, such as during the British selection race, he had barely been aboard a Finn in a year.

"Ben has a long list of credits. He's a returning double gold champion," said the American. "But there are still 24 other sailors out there I have to worry about."

Partnership or not, one of them is Hoegh-Christensen.

"When the Olympics start, both of us will try as hard as we can. I don't think there will be any dirty tricks, but we will race hard," said Hoegh-Christensen.

Ainslie said he will also have his eye on the Dane, as well as on Emilios Papathanasiou of Greece, Ivan Kljakovic Gaspic of Croatia, Rafa Trujillo of Spain and Dan Slater of New Zealand.

"It's difficult when people just expect you to win and probably secretly hope that you lose for a change. Pressure is something you just have to deal with and it doesn't get any easier, but it is also part of the thrill of competing at the highest level," said Ainslie.