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Ben Ainslie: the health fears that could have wrecked Olympic dream
1:12pm Saturday 9th February 2013 in News
HE’S Britain’s most successful ever sailing Olympian with three gold medals around his neck.
The 35-year-old golden wonder admitted his darkest moments were as recent as in January 2012, six months before the Olympics, when he had to have an operation on his back.
“My back has troubled me for years and it was partly caused by the punishment I've given it over the years,” he confides.
And if that was not bad enough he’s been blighted with bad case of scoliosis and a slippage in one of his lower discs.
Then, just a few weeks after the painful operation, he was left demoralised when his back went again. He had been training too hard.
Months of rehab and physio followed. Then he got an attack of positional vertigo, an imbalance in the inner ear, which he had suffered before but was nonetheless something he battled to adjust to.
“It was depressing and frustrating at the time and at one point I thought it had scuppered my chances of competing, but in the end it made me even more determined to win,” he says.
But these recent bouts of bad health came on top of side effects of glandular fever that are still dogging him eight years after contracting the illness.
He says: “I’ve never really got over it. I still suffer from its effects if I push myself too hard or get run down.”
He also suffers from skin photosensitivity – a nightmare for a sailor who is exposed to bright sunlight which reflects off the sea. This can cause his skin to blister and a rash to take hold on his body and face, although thankfully this is gradually improving as he gets older.
But while being weighed down by physical setbacks his natural level headedness and competitive drive keeps his wellbeing on an even keel.
He says: “When I’m racing, I rarely get distracted by any personal issues, I’m totally focused.
“I can get quite down if things aren’t going the way I want them to and I’ve always been a worrier.
“But over the years, I’ve learnt to take myself off on my own for a short while, calm down, get perspective on a situation and think about it rationally.”
It is precisely this rationality that makes him able to put his new-found fame into perspective.
The Olympian hero claims he has his feet anchored on ground and simply couldn’t care less about the celebrity – which he says he avoids like the “proverbial plague”.
He says: “I’m a sportsman, not a celebrity.”
But despite his modesty Ben is quite rightly brimming with pride at his growing collection of medals. Yet he says his triumphs have never come easily. Only an intense training programme guarantees he’s 100 per cent on top of his game.
“Each day I do about 90 minutes of weights and aerobics and then six hours of sailing.”
Feeding his passion for sailing is what spurs him on.
“I’m happiest on a boat in the water,” he says.
“Even when I go on holiday, I sail. It’s lovely to relax and enjoy a boat, rather than race it. In my head I also hear the motivating words of one of my first coaches, who told me, ‘Never give up, keep fighting right to the end, even bad situations can change in an instant’.My refusal to give up has been my greatest strength.”
For Ben the brilliant memories of being involved in a home Olympics and winning gold last year still shine brightly.
Yet since the games it has been non-stop because Ben’s goal now is to win the America’s Cup, one of the toughest races in the world.
“Competing in the America’s Cup is a bit like switching from go-karting to a Formula One car, “ he explains.
“Travelling on the water at 40mph is a bit like going at 150mph on the road, one mistake and it could kill you. But it’s been a dream of mine since I was a kid to be part of a winning America’s Cup team and to try to bring it back to the UK, where it all started in 1851.”
However, while he may continue to take on the world’s best sailors, he has – for now at least – decided not to compete in another Olympics.
He says it was tough decision but believes it would have been difficult to top the feeling of winning gold on home ground.
He added: “I’ve had a fantastic Olympic career and now I want to carry on with new challenges.”