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Nick Thompson interview

by Mark Jardine 21 Jul 2015 10:35 BST 21 July 2015
Nick Thompson in action during the 2014 Rio Test Event © Richard Langdon / British Sailing Team

We talk to Nick Thompson, fresh from his Laser World Championship win in Canada, about his win, his route to the top in the sport, his advice for young sailors and his aspirations for the future in sailing.

Mark Jardine: So Nick, you've finally won the Laser World Championship after two bronze medals and two silver medals at previous Worlds. How does it feel to finally have the gold medal?

Nick Thompson: It's a bit of a relief if I'm honest. It's something I've been pushing very hard trying to achieve for a very long time now and it was almost getting to the stage where I was starting to doubt whether it was ever actually going to happen, having come so close in four other Worlds. It was a bit frustrating, so to have finally done it brought relief and also elation as the other times when I haven't achieved it have made this one time even more special.

MJ: It was a topsy-turvy Worlds where consistency was the key. How did you go about the championship in those kinds of conditions?

NT: The conditions were really tough, we had a mix of everything which was fantastic, from strong winds to very light winds, which is great for a World Championship as you get to see who's the best in all conditions instead of dominating in one. My game plan was similar to how I normally compete which is to just try and be solid and consistent - not trying to win races but trying to avoid big mistakes. At the beginning of the week it was something I was doing really well but I did feel occasionally it was costing me a few points here and there as I wouldn't back myself fully and I was playing the percentages. My coach said to me, "You've left a lot of places on the race course," but I figured a world championship is a long event and there's plenty of opportunities to make mistakes - as it played out that's what my competitors did and I managed not to do.

MJ: In a week's time you're off to Rio for the Olympic Test Event, so your timing of winning the Worlds couldn't have been better.

NT: No, not really, it's something that myself and my coach, Chris Gowers, have been working very hard on. We've been trying to change a few of my techniques and a few things over the years and sometimes you don't see the results in the big events and it's difficult. I guess relating it to other sports, like when Tiger Woods changed his swing, you're not going to see results straight away and to now finally be getting the results and everything coming together is really quite rewarding, especially going forward with the test event coming up soon and the Olympic Games is only a year away - I'm pretty happy with where I'm at.

MJ: How will you change your approach in the Olympic Test Event with a smaller fleet taking part than in the World Championship?

NT: It's a good question. I think there are a few things that you have to do slightly differently. In the Worlds I was playing very much a percentage game and I think at the test event it's going to be a little bit more of going with what you think and back yourself a bit more, because those 2 or 3 points that you leave on the race track are actually going to be very important come the end of the regatta, and I can't see so many of the top guys making big mistakes because of the nature of the fleet. So I think my strategy is going to have to be a little bit more throw my hat out there and see what happens and commit a bit more to everything. I'm not going to take massive risks, that's not what I'm suggesting, but I think taking a few more and really going for it is the key.

MJ: Can you tell me a bit about your background in the sport. How did you get into sailing in the first place and what was your initial racing?

NT: I grew up in Lymington and started off at the Salterns Sailing Club. I lived just down the road and started off messing around in the 'Peanut', which is probably still there, the little rowing boat, and that was just fantastic - having the opportunity to hang out with my friends as they were all into the same thing. There were plenty of experienced and talented sailors coming down to help coach and they taught me a lot very quickly. Then from there I came down to the Royal Lymington and did a little bit of Wednesday evening sailing and some other things, and got picked up by Christian Sutherland and sailed Cadets with him for about 4 years in the front from a very young age, so I started competing at 6 or 7 really. Then I did another year with the late Nick Phillips, then I moved onto the Optimist and sailed those for about 4 years, so I kind of did a bit of everything really. I did a fair bit of crewing in my youth and then moved into singlehanded sailing, which is really what I enjoy doing a little bit more; every mistake you make is your own fault and everything you do right is down to you, it's always been something I've really enjoyed. I then progressed through the squad system, I was very fortunate that when I came through my junior and youth sailing there was a system in place, just like there is now, and it really is a fantastic system and a great job the RYA have done in setting that up. I then progressed into the Olympic Development Squad and the Performance Squad and then it was about knuckling down, doing what the coaches said, committing fully to everything and the path was laid out for me. I really was very fortunate.

MJ: It sounds like with your initial sailing you were doing it purely for fun and it reflects in how you talk about sailing. Do you think it's important to keep the fun and enjoy the sport, even though you're at the top end of it now?

NT: Yes, very much so. It's such a good point to bring up really as I started off doing it for fun and there have certainly been times where that element started drifting. There were definitely times where I was struggling with the sport and really not enjoying it as much as I should have been. Everything started coming together again when I started loving it, realising why I do it. It's a fantastic sport, you get out on the water, you're there with your mates, everything about it at every level, even Olympic level, we're all really good friends. On the water we're fierce competitors, but off the water we're all really close. I think there are so many things to love about the sport, so many challenges that the sport brings that even if you fall out of love with one area, you're going to find plenty of others and I think the enjoyment is absolutely key to being successful and having longevity in sailing.

MJ: This week the Optimist Europeans are taking place in Pwllheli, there are going to be young sailors who have seen your result in the Laser Worlds and that'll be what many are aspiring to. What advice would you give to them to enjoy their sailing and do well?

NT: I'm really looking forward to seeing how everyone gets on in Pwllheli, it's been a while since I've been racing in an Optimist Europeans and I think it's fantastic that it's come to the UK. My advice is what we've just been talking about, you've just got to love it and don't take it too seriously. You're obviously trying to do well at the event, and that I think is very important, but I think all of that comes from the preparation beforehand, you tick all those boxes and get everything done and try and go into the event relaxed, I think that's the key. If you over-think things then that's where the issues come and really you've got to fall back on the fact that you've done the hard work and the event is an experience to enjoy and hopefully the result will follow.

MJ: The next year for you is clearly going to be quite intense in the build-up to Rio, what's your schedule like and what is the selection process?

NT: The selection is ongoing, I've just been selected for the test event so far, but in the regattas that have been important I've managed to very well at, so hopefully the selectors are looking favourably on me. Certainly it's going to be a tough challenge, the young guys coming through are doing well with Lorenzo finishing 10th at the worlds and 11th last year, so definitely seeing improvement, but time now is not focusing so much on selection but focusing on the games itself and obviously the test event coming up. After that I'm going to go pretty much straight into a heavy season of training, there's a few areas I need to improve on and we've managed to highlight again with my coach Chris - some good venues and some good people to sail with to improve those things, so that's really going to be the key over the next 12 months.

MJ: It seems with the British Sailing Team that there's an amazing structure in place. Do you think that gives Great Britain a real advantage going into the Olympics?

NT: I think the British Sailing Team is fantastic, I really can't credit them enough. The support staff and everyone behind the scenes from Sparky [Stephen Park], the Olympic Manager, all the way down to the guys doing the day-to-day jobs, they really do commit themselves fully to it and they do a fantastic job. I think that alone is very important and it's also a backbone to fall back on. In your tough days you know that you've got the best team around you to help pull you through. Again with the sailors, they've made such improvements, I think this is something we've seen for a long time in the Laser class, we've seen the older generation, which I guess I'm a part of now, helping out the younger guys and it's something that I had. I came in just when Ainslie was leaving and Goodie was the top dog and it was such a good squad at that time - they helped me through and obviously I'm trying to do the same with the next generation now. I hope that once I'm done with my Laser sailing, whenever that might be, we're going to have a lot more good sailors coming through.

MJ: Talking of the future, after your Laser sailing, what would you like to do next in the sport?

NT: It's a good question. I might do another Olympics after this one, I'm not sure yet. But really in the future I'd like to go into the America's Cup, obviously sailing with Ben would be the dream, to sail with a British team would be fantastic. The job that he's done so far setting up BAR is hugely impressive and from all the guys that I know involved in the team, especially Giles [Scott] who I'm very good friends with, from what I'm hearing they're doing a brilliant job and I really think they've got a good chance of winning, so the dream would be to sail with those guys.

MJ: It seems now with the America's Cup it's turning into an aerobic sport, especially for the crews, with Ben losing 12 kilos just so they can get more power on the boat. Do you think it's now going to be a case of wanting the top sailors at the top of their fitness for the America's Cup?

NT: I think it will be. I think it's a good thing for the sport, if you look at a lot of the Olympic classes, the best sailors are the fittest sailors and I think the America's Cup in the past has had some very big, strong grinders but some of the others have maybe not been so athletic and I think having athletes doing what is the pinnacle of our sport is a good think for spectators who aren't sailors themselves. Everybody on the boat now has to pull their weight and they're all hugely fit, Giles has been coming back from some of the training sessions and saying that they really are impressive and he's an absolute weapon himself! It's brilliant and I think it just makes our sport look better.

MJ: Huge congratulations on your result in the Worlds, it's a justly-deserved result after coming so close in the past, and many thanks for your time.

NT: Thanks very much.

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