Article originally posted 25th October 2009
She won her first Olympic gold medal in 2000 – a year that was capped off by being named Female Sailor of the Year by the International Sailing Federation. Four years on, her team clinched gold in the Yngling class at the Olympics. She was awarded an MBE in 2001 and an OBE in 2004. Last month, her team came 5th in the iShares Cup Extreme 40 Sailing Series. WideWorld meets Shirley Robertson.
Shirley Robertson has been described as one of the greatest female Olympic sailors in history. She has two Olympic gold medals, three silvers from the Europe World Championships and was last year the only female skipper to sail the notoriously tough Extreme 40 at the iShares Cup.
Her sailing debut was at the age of seven on a Loch in the Trossachs in Scotland, where she’s from, and she says the progression to a professional sailing career was a natural one. “I started a bit of sailing on my own at the club and I suppose showed some flair – a bit of tenacity,” she says. “I went to a few events and got spotted. It was very different then – now people start competing abroad at a very early age; I didn’t do my first abroad ’til I was 18.”
Certainly, the world of sailing has become increasingly precocious. Like in many sports, there is an insatiable thirst for records – not least the coveted ‘youngest to…’ label. A stark example of this trend emerged this summer, when 13-year-old Laura Dekker was put under state care by the Dutch court after announcing her intentions to become the youngest person to sail solo around the world.
Robertson is diplomatic about cases like these, noting that generalizations from one 13-year-old to the next are rarely valid, but admits: “I’m not a huge fan of all the record breaking, it seems everyone wants to be the first. It’s tricky because sailing embodies that freedom and sense of adventure – it’s not something you want to restrict by rules. But would I want my daughter doing that at 13? Probably not.”
The adventure side of sailing has been a huge side of the appeal for Robertson, with many of her fondest career memories being of oceans around the world: “I like strong winds so often we go to South of France and they have the mistral and I love that – raw and powerful”, she says. “I loved Salvador in Brazil, really interesting onshore, great beaches, good wind, lovely lifestyle.” And to witness Sydney Harbor from a boat is also a standout: “It was pretty incredible. Even before the games, sailing out from the harbour and there’s the bridge and the opera house… it’s really special. A lovely amphitheatre for sailing.”
But with a slew of medals to her name, there’s been a fair few standout moments on dry land too: “The gold medals are a great memory. But even the non medaling games were all very poignant moments in my life”, she says. “I still close my eyes and put myself there.”
An accomplished Olympian, Robertson is enjoying an involved role in the 2012 preparations, as part of LOCO – the organizing committee for the London Games. She explains that the village is more compact than in recent years, symptomatic of what she describes as a “very much an inner-city Olympics”. With the long term success of the British sailing team, Robertson is approaching the games with optimism. “You generally have longevity in the sport, and the same people who were medaling in 2000 are still there,” she says. “It rewards experience and I think that will show.” Whilst the team has not been finalised, Shirley will remain at the helm – so to speak. And she hasn’t ruled out competing in 2012 herself. “I’m still debating whether I’m competing, but if I’m not I’ll present again [Robertson presented at the 2008 Beijing Games], I’m very much still in that role.”
Indeed, Robertson is carving out a successful role for herself when off the water. She is BBC sailing correspondent and a reporter for CNN. She recently returned from making a program on regatta Les Voiles de St-Tropez with the latter. You could be forgiven for thinking Robertson has seen it all, but the glitz of this prestigious date in the sailing calendar left a mark: “It’s almost a wonder of the world, it’s an amazing event”, she says. And, at the top of her sporting game, live television poses a whole new set of challenges. “You have that real sense of adrenaline… it’s a good feeling,” she says. “We’re always looking for something difficult.”
As adrenaline goes, though, even live television can’t rival the Extreme 40 iShares Cup event that Robertson recently skippered. The event is famous for scaling up 40ft Olympic Class Catamarans to make them twice and big, and much more powerful. “I’ll never forget the first time I sailed it”, she says. “You sail with one of the hulls way up in the air and that’s very tricky to get used to. It’s a really high standard, which is hard, but also the boats are tough.” Enough to get the nerves going of a double gold medalist? Apparently so. “I’m never usually scared in a boat, but I am scared in an Extreme 40 – yes.”
All this and young twins – the sailor admits that the only other sport she has time to pursue for now is “scooting with the kids – I’ve never got the stamina I would like!” But with challenges like the Extreme 40 and the potential of another Olympic appearance, she doesn’t seem to be doing so badly.
For more information, visit: www.shirleyrobertson.com