Third Time Lucky 

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Most people want to celebrate their 40th birthday by doing something once in a lifetime, from jumping out of a plane to walking the Inca Trail.

But there is nothing John Robertson would like more to mark 2012, the year of his Big 4-0, than by landing the one prize that has eluded him during his much-decorated sailing career; some Paralympic silverware.

Having arrived on the Sonar scene as the new kids on the Paralympic block at Athens 2004, back-to-back World Championship wins in 2005 and 2006 saw Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Stephen Thomas catapulted into the ‘favourites’ bracket for Beijing 2008.  

But the trio were forced into some serious soul-searching after enduring a tough Paralympic regatta in China, where they finished sixth, matching their Athens result of four years previously.  

Fast forward two years and Robertson admits he and his teammates took a while to deal with the disappointment of Beijing. But now armed with a new mindset, and a 2010 IFDS Worlds silver added to their silverware collection, the British Sonar crew have their sights set solely on sealing their selection for London 2012 and converting their track record into Paralympic gold.  

John said: “It took a while to absorb what happened at Beijing. We were bitterly disappointed because we thought we would win gold and it is difficult to accept that when the crunch came we were not up to it. We enjoyed a great couple of years after Athens and when you are going well you expect things of yourself while other people’s expectations also increase.  

“When we sat down after Beijing and broke down what worked and what didn’t we felt it was the psychology side of things we struggled with. Compared to the Olympic guys the Paralympic sailors don’t get to do as many big events in the build-up to a Games so in terms of mental preparation and managing the stress and excitement of a Paralympic regatta we didn’t handle it as well as we could have. All you can do is knuckle down, accept you weren’t good enough and learn from it.  

“In the past we have maybe looked too much at the negatives, and the ‘Don’t do that again’ mistakes, to get something out of training and regattas but over the past two years we have worked really hard on shifting our mindset completely so we now focus on the positives, because you grow in a better way as sailors. We look for learning points from everything and don’t just beat ourselves up with the things we have done wrong. But that shift has taken a lot of time and effort.”  

The biggest evidence that this fresh approach was beginning to pay dividends for Robertson and crew came at the IDFS Worlds in Medemblik last July. After a distinctly average start to the regatta, the Brits kept their heads up and kept plugging away until, heading into the final race, they knew they could win a medal, and it could still be gold.  

Fate eventually decreed the medal would be silver after the Dutch got a favourable protest decision against the USA to claim the title. But for Robertson the colour of the medal was largely inconsequential compared to the way they had turned the regatta around.  

“Medemblik was the best Worlds we have ever had. When we won in 2005 and 2006 we did it leading from the front the whole way through but this was completely different.  It was shifty and light at Medemblik, and there were guys leading races who had never been in the top 10 before. We knew our speed was pretty good and if we just kept at it we would be there or thereabouts at the end. There was a resilience and toughness about our performance and we were focussing on beating the other boats not internalising everything and beating ourselves up when we made mistakes.”  

It wasn’t just mental gains the Sonar team looked to make last year, there was plenty of technical sailing lessons they were learning at the same time.  

With the 2010 Women’s Match Racing Worlds taking place in Sonar keelboats, Skandia Team GBR’s World Champion match racing helm Lucy Macgregor invited John, Hannah and Stephen to be their training partners ahead of the Worlds.  

This proved a two-fold fillip for the Paralympic team as not only did it give them a week of World class competitive sparring on British waters against British sailors, when ordinarily they have to train with international opponents or hire sailors as training partners to sail their spare Sonar, but it also introduced Robertson and co to the intricacies of match racing, an invaluable skill John believes.  

“Training with Lucy and her team was another level of sailing altogether and I’d love to know a bit more about match racing. You see match racing tactics employed all the time in big Olympic fleet races but it is still something that is fairly new in Paralympic racing. From Athens onwards the points at the end of the regattas have got closer and closer between the top six or seven boats so to have something like match racing skills in your toolbox could be the difference between a medal or not.”  

With Robertson’s team the only British Sonar boat, from the outside their 2012 Paralympic place looks a formality. But John warns he will never risk taking his foot off the gas until their selection is confirmed and he gets a shot at the best 40th birthday present of them all next year.  

He added: “We may not have to beat other boats to be selected but we have to prove ourselves against ourselves, which is a whole different pressure. The selectors know the standards we have reached in the past and we have to make sure we hit those heights, and beyond, so there is absolutely no doubt in their minds about whether to send a Sonar to London 2012 or not.  

“It had crossed my mind that it is my 40th next year and it would be a pretty awesome birthday year if we could win a gold medal. But we cannot get too ahead of ourselves and we have to keep remembering the progress we feel we have made in the past two years and keep trying to build on it.”   ·        

Robertson, Stodel and Thomas are in action at the Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta from 24-29 January.