Blonde ambition: Extreme dreams of sailing's golden girl

Story highlights

  • Sarah Ayton one of only two females taking part in Extreme Sailing Series event
  • Briton part of The Wave, Muscat team who are current race leaders
  • Two legs left of eight-stage race left to race with Turkey up next in October

(CNN)For two Olympic campaigns, Sarah Ayton was part of a crew labeled "Three Blondes in a Boat."

Sailing alongside the likes of Shirley Robertson -- now CNN's Main Sail presenter -- among others, Ayton won gold in 2004 and 2008 in the Yngling class -- and even now, seven years on, the tag created by the British media still resonates.
"When I'm in a room delivering a talk people will say, 'Who are you?' I reply, 'You may remember me as one of the three blondes in a boat,' and they're like, 'Of course you are,'" Ayton says.
    "But it's all good. It was fun, and in sailing we need those sorts of role models and people to talk about."
    Ayton is so much more than simply a blonde in a boat.
    Right now, she's one of only two females in the entire fleet of the Extreme Sailing Series, a multihull racing championship likened to Formula One by her fellow British Olympic champion Ben Ainslie.
    But she barely thinks about her gender when operating as tactician on The Wave, Muscat, which leads the series after five of the eight regattas.
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    "It doesn't matter if I'm male or female on board," Ayton says. "We all have our roles in the boat. Everyone is respected and supposed to be the best in that role.
    "If you're not sailing your best, you won't win.
    "And the boys will give me a hard time. If I'm not on my game and not feeding information, I know about it. There is no messing around. I know what's expected of me.
    "I've learned a lot from sailing with the boys. It's very honest and upfront. There's no place to hide, which I really love. We all want to win, so the pressure's on all the time."
    That is not to say the boat's skipper Leigh McMillan and the rest of his crew are devoid of chivalry.
    "The guys sometimes carry my bag!" reveals Ayton.
    "But being the only female in the year, I don't really think anything of it. You just crack on and be the best you can be at what you do."
    Ayton says many of her female racing colleagues -- fewer in their number than their male counterparts -- are either focusing on Olympic campaigns for Rio de Janeiro next year or competing in the Volvo Ocean Race with the all-women Team SCA.
    Being a mother of two, the series -- which has visited Singapore, Oman, China, Wales, Germany and Russia and next goes to Turkey then finally Australia -- has brought complications for Ayton that the men might not necessarily experience.
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    The fourth round in Cardiff, where The Wave moved a point ahead after coming out on top in the 32 grueling races held over four days, was the first time Ayton's young sons Thomas and Oscar had seen her race.
    "I was a bit nervous as I'm normally very controlled in the series and know my sport rather than being dictated to by two little boys here," she says.
    "Thomas says, 'Mummy's quite a good sailor,'" she adds, smiling with faux offense.
    "But I'm lucky in that my mother and father are just brilliant -- they move into my house and they run the show while I'm away.
    "With all the technology and Skype, we can talk. I'm lucky I can have that. The hard bit is actually being at home being full-time mum and getting to the gym to stay in shape."
    That task has been made easier by turning the garden shed into a makeshift gym so workouts can begin when her boys are settled in bed for the night.
    "It's nice to have time away from home and think about them and their happiness, and can I do a better job?" Ayton reflects.
    "I miss them but I'm grateful to have an opportunity to do this and then go home and be a mum again."
    Parenthood meant Ayton was unable to pursue an Olympic treble at London 2012, instead playing the role of support act from the shore to her then husband Nick Dempsey, a windsurfer who won silver that year.
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    They have since separated, and the absence of 2012 on Ayton's CV remains a driving factor for another possible Olympic campaign.
    "In hindsight I think that was tough," she says of missing the Games. "I don't regret it at all but think I could have been there.
    "It's an opportunity missed, but I have the two boys and I can go for 2020. I can use those feelings around 2012 -- I'm still fit enough, still strong enough, I've still got it."
    Ayton says her Olympic golds are among the happiest memories of her career but, aged 35, she believes she still has plenty of time left in the sport.
    Targets include being a female lead in the growing moth foiling race scene and some sort of involvement in the America's Cup, a series she argues is not really open to women competitors.
    "For the America's Cup you need to be 80 kg and be absolutely stacked, and a female doesn't fit into that category," says Ayton, who recently found herself taking photos of the Ben Ainslie Racing base in Portsmouth as a fan.
    "But watching the America's Cup on TV as a child was like the Olympics -- I was thinking, 'I want to be there.'
    "So the aim is to maybe get involved in a Cup program somehow, 2020 (Tokyo Olympics) and the whole foiling movement."
    Ayton is adamant her hunger to compete has not diminished since becoming a mother.
    "Maybe two years ago I would have questioned that -- have I lost something? -- but lack of sleep, being tired etc. has helped me learn a new set of skills," she says.
    "I feel like I've done my apprenticeship at parenthood and feel like the old Sarah is back."