“THANKS for the support over the years.”
That was the message from the world’s most decorated Olympic sailor, touched by the thousands of people who lined the streets to show their admiration for the star as he made his way through his Hampshire home town in an open-top bus parade.
There was barely a spare inch of pavement as everyone from youngsters to pensioners – both friends and strangers – began gathering along the two-mile route more than an hour before the bus arrived, just to catch a glimpse of their hero.
It was then the 35-year-old sailing star proudly held one of his four gold medals high in the air and shouted out: “I just wanted to say a huge thank you to everyone for turning up.”
Ben’s family members, including mum and dad Susan and Roddy and his eight-year-old nephew Oscar Pels, looked amazed at the sea of fans below.
As Ben stepped off the bus, casually dressed in a white sailing top, he received a rapturous welcome.
He made his way slowly through the supporters, greeted by a chorus of congratulations, and signing autographs along the way. He spoke to children in awe of their new idol and hugged old friends from the small sailing town.
Ben looked overwhelmed and could not stop smiling as his supporters waved Union flags, stood on tiptoe with mobile phone cameras and children showed off hand-made banners which read Welcome Home Our Hero.
He stopped outside Henri Lloyd sailing shop, where he went afterwards for a private party, and there was a deafening cheer as hundreds of people chanted his name.
A couple of times it looked as if he was heading inside, but he turned around for another wave and another “Thank you so much”. Holding both his hands above his head, he was visibly moved by the outpouring of support.
Ben has won four Olympic gold medals and one silver in a glittering career.
Speaking to the Daily Echo, he said: “London was amazing but this means a lot more to me in a way because it’s where I’ve spent most of my adult life.
“I’ve had so much support from the town and the community. It’s great to see so many people out and great for me in a small way to be able to say thanks for the support over the years.”
He added: “It’s been about a month now and I’ve been very busy but I’ve had plenty of time to think about it. It’s overwhelming emotionally – the Olympics has just been a fantastic event. Everyone’s just so happy for the UK – it’s such a big event for us. We did so well as a nation too.”
The tour was organised by Lymington mayor Councillor Jacqui England, who was also on board the bus.
She said: “I think the crowds proved just how much the town values Ben. The admiration they have shown is amazing.”