Mercurial talent can be a tricky thing to control. Ben Ainslie does it peerlessly through persistent determination and constantly extracting the maximum from that which is in-built. Nathan Outteridge meanwhile has something derived from heavenly, almost celestial sources. Jimmy works it to the death and operates on the outer edge of perceivable skill whilst Pete Burling’s inherent craftsmanship in steering just gets continually refined.
You’d have any one of those on your boat and pay a King’s ransom for the privilege. But what of Tom Slingsby? Speak to the pros and they go into another level of explanation and struggle to get the words to explain a talent so bright, so mercurial that it’s almost ethereal. There’s a pause before they talk…and usually the sentence intros with: “Well where do I start?”
Well a good place is that performance in the Moth Worlds this year, where he scored 13 wins from 14, something that very few thought was even possible. It’s generation-leaping stuff. It’s Ainslie in the Finn in his prime. It’s Elvstrom in 1952 at the Olympic Games. That’s the magnitude of that victory in Malcesine.
It’s World Sailor of the Year quality – and we’re strapping that Rolex Yacht Master on his wrist right now or those awards are a sham. And his comeback victory in the Laser at London 2012 was something of the Boy’s Own variety. Throw in a Sydney-Hobart win, the 34th America’s Cup and the inaugural SailGP season plus a hatful of wins across the board and we get the picture of arguably the greatest sailor alive today.
Everyone should be banging his door down to drive in the AC but the restrictive nationality clause denies us, the viewing public, of seeing his talents on display. Fear not, the SailGP circuit satisfies the thirst to see Slingsby in his prime and yesterday’s press conference was a refreshing insight into a guy who owns his failings with a refreshing honesty:
“Consistency is not in our dictionary at the moment. We win an event and them come last in the next one. It’s a bit unlike us, actually, but it is a big problem that we are trying to address.
Look, we did have some technical issues [in Saint-Tropez], but even with those issues we didn’t adapt well to them and there are things we found in our debrief that, even though parts of our boat weren’t working correctly, we could have done better.
It is a big problem for us, and we need to steady the ship and get some consistency, because if we keep on this sort of trajectory we will probably miss the final three in San Francisco. We need three good events from this point on to make the final three.”
This honesty isn’t typical of top-level athletes or those struggling into the top echelons. But at the very elite, the very pinnacle, the apex of sports those that occupy and sup that rarefied air have a different lexicon.
They demand more of themselves than is reasonable. They push beyond boundaries that constrain the rest of us and they introspect and analyse their performances to improve – often at huge personal mental risk. A lot of it is mind-games purely on themselves, a trick to lock human emotion into and focus on an event by employing self-determination at a level unattainable to everyone else.
Truman Capote once said: ‘Failure is the condiment that gives success its flavour’ and with Slingsby you can see just what it means to win. Lo and behold he sits atop the leaderboard tonight in Cadiz, marginally ahead of the pack, with all to play for and after his words yesterday you can see that he’s “on” for this regatta. So often bubbly or bust, Slingsby is box-office pure and simple and you can’t help yourself but look for the green and gold of Australia when he’s on the course.
There are some in the Cup that want to keep it nation to nation and have a strict nationality rule – I have to say that as a Brit starved historically of chance, strangled of success and bored of hope against hope in the greatest yachting competition on earth, I should be in favour of the strictest clause possible in the Protocol as we really do look like having a chance in this cycle. But the tight five skippers at the top of the world right now are really what I want to see in action if I’m truthful with myself.
Slingsby’s the one that tilts the balance of reason and a restrictive clause in the Protocol in mid-November will surely, and depressingly, relegate him to either another Olympic cycle or as tune-up helm. The sport and the event would be poorer without him but it might just be what’s required for a British victory – unless Ineos hire him of course…
Ruthless is the Great Game. Let’s see what happens tomorrow in Cadiz…