Sarah Ayton: Double Olympic sailing champion to ride amateur race at Goodwood

Sarah Ayton
Ayton (right) won her first Olympic gold in the Yngling class with Sarah Webb (left) and Shirley Robertson (centre)
Qatar Goodwood Festival
Venue: Goodwood racecourse Dates: 1-5 August
Coverage: Commentary and updates on BBC Radio 5 live and the BBC Sport website

On Thursday, double Olympic sailing gold medallist Sarah Ayton will face the "fear" of riding a horse in front of 25,000 people at the Glorious Goodwood festival.

Ayton, one of Britain's 'three blondes in a boat' at the 2004 Games, spoke to BBC Sport's Louise Gwilliam about swapping sailing for the saddle and raising two children in between.

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At the age of 28, Sarah Ayton had just won back-to-back Olympic gold medals and was on the verge of history.

With London 2012 on the horizon, she had the opportunity to become the first British woman to win three consecutive Olympic gold medals, and to achieve this on home soil.

But the Surrey-born athlete desperately wanted to start a family. With her then husband Nick Dempsey also striving to achieve his own windsurfing gold medal, "something had to give".

In 2010, after the birth of their first child Thomas, Ayton decided to put her sailing ambitions on hold.

"If I was hungry enough to want gold in London, I would have made it happen," said the 37-year-old.

"But at the time I'd already won two gold medals and I wanted to start a family. For me, that was what was important.

"I decided I wasn't prepared to run my sailing campaign at 70% and I also wasn't prepared to sacrifice bringing up my son Thomas.

"We got to the point in our relationship where one of us had to make a sacrifice. I felt it was time for me to sit back and give Nick the freedom to achieve his dream."

Sarah Ayton
Sarah Ayton was part of the "three blondes in a boat" who won gold in the Yngling class in Beijing

'2012 was a shocking time'

Dempsey is Britain's most successful windsurfer with three Olympic medals, but at the time he was battling with the disappointment of a fourth-place finish in Beijing.

The 36-year-old desperately wanted to better his bronze from Athens at London and while Sarah gave birth to their second child Oscar in early 2012, Nick continued to pursue his Olympic goal.

He went on to take silver in London, but the couple's marriage broke down and they divorced shortly after the Games.

"There's no getting away from it, 2012 was a shocking time," she said.

"But you realise a lot about yourself and how strong you are. I focused on building another team around me with my parents and friends and realised I could get through some really tough times.

"Things break down and I've learnt not to be bitter and twisted but to move forward and focus on being mentally strong.

"Seeing people win medals at London 2012 was hard, but I don't have any regret.

"I now know how to deal with that feeling of guilt which many people suffer with when making compromises to fulfil their dreams and bring up kids. And it's taught me that I will continue to go on and achieve."

Returning with a bang

Sarah Ayton
Sarah returned to the sport and became a tactician in the male-dominated world of high-performance sailing

As a woman who "loves a challenge", it wasn't long before Sarah's competitive instinct returned and she was once again at the pinnacle of her sport.

In 2014 she went back out on the water, to compete in what is described as the 'Formula 1 of sailing' - the Extreme Sailing Series - and was the only female to take part.

Her crew contested 11 races a day, over four days of competition, and competed in eight events a year - something she admits was "a lot of travelling for a mother of two".

And the following year she won the Female Sailor of the year 2015 - the highest award a sailor can receive.

"It was a massive challenge going back into sailing after having both of my boys.

"The Extreme Series is basically a stepping stone into the America's Cup. It's very male dominated so that brings with it everything you think it would.

"But I learnt my lesson from the tough times in 2010 and 2011 and I built a good team around me - my parents allowed me to do that.

"It highlighted the point that I have to keep remaining positive. You make your own opportunities and if an opportunity comes along you just have to grab it."

Which is why she finds herself just days away from racing in front of 25,000 people at Goodwood.

'The first time I've been scared in sport'

Sarah Ayton
Sarah is now training at Amanda Perrett's racing yard in Pulborough

With her two boys, now aged seven and five, at school, Sarah has "more freedom" and has embarked upon a new challenge - horse racing.

Despite only taking up the sport in December, and "never really riding before", she will start in the Magnolia Cup on Ladies' Day at Goodwood on Thursday.

"I am taking this as seriously as I did the Olympic Games. But it's the first time in my life I've been scared through sport.

"I tried horse riding when I was a child and I just remember being absolutely petrified and I was almost thrown off. I didn't connect at all and I never went back."

After 13 hours of instruction, and watching "a bit of a documentary", Sarah was paired up with her horse, Archangel Raphael at Amanda Perrett's racing yard.

The first time she got on, Archangel was out of control but the former Olympic athlete managed to stop him dead, and they were declared "a suitable pairing".

"You have to have a presence when you're sat on a horse like you do on a boat. You have to be in control and take charge otherwise you'll have a rough ride.

"I've had one bad fall where I landed awkwardly and got whiplash. Then I got kicked and thought I'd broken my foot but actually both turned out to be fine. I'm confident on him now."

Sarah will line up alongside 11 other amateur female jockeys on the start line for the Magnolia Cup - now in its seventh year.

But having come through two Olympic Games, and "extremely tough times", she says she isn't feeling the pressure.

"Stood on the podium in Beijing, my feeling was of relief, relief that I hadn't messed up.

"You get a bit lost sometimes in Olympic sports and you start to expect, but this has been really genuine. I just want to do it for everyone that has helped me.

"Physically, I am in the best shape I've been in since the Beijing Games. It comes down to a 55-second ride after eight months of training. And it's all about the start."

Sarah Ayton
Sarah has been helped by champion jockey Jim Crowley and two-time Grand National winner Leighton Aspell

The future....

Juggling the tacking up, riding and mucking out of Archangel with school pick-ups and drop-offs of her boys Oscar and Thomas has "been stressful" admits Sarah.

The mother of two says even staying awake for bath and bed time every night has been a challenge.

But she won't take too much time off. When her Magnolia Cup journey comes to an end, Sarah says she will "be looking for something else", and at 38 years old, her days of competing at the highest level are far from over.

"I went to Wimbledon this year and saw Venus Williams smashing it around at the age of 37 and I thought 'that's where women are great'.

"I am still a full-time mother and it's hard. But it gets easier as they get older and I have time now to think what might be possible.

"After being in the mix of it all with children, it takes a bit to reconnect with who you really are. But I'm already trying to think of the next challenge.

"I have no idea how good I am at horse racing compared to a professional but I'd be pulled that way for sure. I could see myself forming a relationship with a professional partner in the future."

And Tokyo 2020....? "You never know."

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