24th May 2019
Double Olympic Gold-Medallist Shirley Robertson OBE made it into the history books by becoming the first British woman to win two Olympic gold medals at consecutive games, in Sydney 2000 and Athens 2004. SPINNAKER chats with Shirley about the start of her career and how it progressed.
Sailing has been in your blood since starting at age 7,? how did you get into sailing?
My Dad was introduced to sailing during his national service and then later encouraged by a friend, he built a kit sailing dinghy. It turns out he wasn’t terribly proficient but that didn’t hold him back! There was much capsizing, but it was a lot of fun! I instantly loved it.
The first boat I sailed was a Mirror Miracle, a kit boat that you could build with flat sheets of ply wood and then glue and stitch the joins. DIY in the UK in the late 70’s was all the rage. It was cheap, easy to transport and ideal for sailing and fishing or just generally messing about in. We lived near Stirling in Scotland, so nowhere near the sea but we would sail it on holidays and then later we club raced it on a lake.
When I was about 13 my Dad bought a tiny cruising boat, only 19 feet long and together with my mum and the Yorkshire terrier we would cruise the west coast – not that sure the dog enjoyed it that much. When I was 14 I was spotted by the Scottish Laser Coach who invited me to join the senior team that winter for training – that was my big break, not sure he saw that much talent but definitely bundles of tenacity.
Tell us about the Olympic dream and experience....
Success in the Olympic arena is a Gold medal – simple as that – and the opportunities to make that happen are rare – for me, in the end, it worked out. Actually, it worked out twice. But it took time. Four Olympic campaigns, four fights for selection, funding, sponsorship, personnel selection, all the things that make up a successful campaign, and then the Olympic Regattas themselves. The agony of a fourth-place finish in Atlanta, a life changing disappointment that was a make or break moment in my life. It taught me a lot - how to learn from my mistakes, how to be honest about my weaknesses, how to really maximise all the time you have, and that generally, the people who perform have largely worked the hardest at the important stuff with a smart motivated team around them – there is no easy fix.
For the last three Games, I’ve been out on the water, watching the action, reporting into the live coverage on the BBC – hoping to give sailing some prime-time air time and give the British heroes of our sport the moment in the limelight they deserve. It’s a privileged position, often we’re the first interaction the sailors have after a race – win or lose its emotional, and important from my end to get it right.
Working in an environment which is all about sailing, do you miss sailing competitively??
I guess the honest answer is at times yes, I miss the single-minded focus of the Olympic arena. The nervousness before a ‘big one’.
Put a tiller in my hand even now though, and the need to be the fastest comes straight back. An Olympic sailing fleet is a competitive place to be, and I spent years within that bubble, where from sunrise to sunset everything we did was focused on trying to be the best. If you live like that for a couple of decades, it goes pretty deep. Am not sure that always makes me the best Mum, but the kids are old enough to laugh at me for it nowadays!
I have 12-year-old twins a boy and a girl. My son is now fanatical about sailing, so that takes up quite a bit of time, I’ve watched him grow in independence and confidence as a direct result of sailing – it teaches you to be self-reliant, to push outside your comfort zone and that practise and perseverance delivers results. He’s also become part of a community, a group of youngsters with a common passion – and he feels a part of it all….as a parent it’s heart-warming to watch. My daughter does love to holiday on a boat – she enjoys making friends along the way and exploring new places – the actual sailing is less of an attraction she hates being cold and wet – who can blame her.
I still race on the Superyacht circuit, and would like to do more keelboat sailing in the future when life calms down a bit.
People would tend to think that your job is a glamorous one, travelling the world, working in a sporting environment that has given you so much, but there are the tough moments behind it too......tell us more about the reality of doing such a job
If you love sailing and you love TV then for I sure have the dream job – we are always in the thick of the action, have incredible access to the diverse range of fascinating personalities our sport offers.It’s a story rich sport and we do our best to make it shine.
It’s a long way from glamorous – long long days, never time for lunch, never quite enough resources. But it can be so rewarding – a team of people on the same page, collaborating, pushing hard to make the best TV - that’s what makes it so compelling.
This was your second visit to Malta and the Rolex Middle Sea Race – how have you seen this race develop and evolve? ?
It’s a joy to film in Malta, It’s a country full of intrigue and story, and exceptionally photogenic, the harbour is the perfect amphitheatre to set the drama of the race start. It’s also a race with a real sting in it’s tail and that edge is transparent in the respect the sailors give it – it’s a race with a reputation.
The Rolex Middle Sea Race seems more popular than ever.
Any suggestions or motivational words for young people wishing either a career in sailing or in broadcasting??
Do it!! A lot of my sailing was self-taught but there’s so many more resources available now. Get down to the nearest sailing club and get involved in a youth sailing programme. And then, most importantly, stick with it. Sailing gets you out in the elements, and the reality of that is that sometimes it is wet, and it is cold, but the feeling of independence I felt when I sailed alone for the first time, in charge of a boat, powered only by the wind, is a feeling that is as cherished to me as any memory of any medal ceremony. Importantly too though, sailing is a great social environment, and a great leveller. I was beating boys’ way older than me around race courses as a teenager, and some of the friends I’ve made through sailing are the closest friends I have.
Broadcasting – there are lots of different avenues into the Media world, as an athlete I was always after feedback and it’s the same now at work, don’t be afraid to ask for advice, work in an arena you a passionate about, and understand how the ‘jigsaw’ of the product is put together, TV in particular is a ‘team sport’ - make the editors’ life easy and you will quickly build a solid reputation.
This article was featured on the Winter 2019 edition of Spinnaker Magazine, published by the Royal Malta Yacht Club
Photos courtesy of Ms. Shirley Robertson