BYM interviews Brewin Dolphin Scottish Series ambassador Shirley Robertson
Tell us about the Brewin Dolphin Scottish Series

Shirley Robertson: I am an ambassador for the event which takes place over the bank holiday weekend in May (28-31 May). It is Scotland's premier sailing regatta and is hosted by the Clyde Cruising Club and the village of Tarbert on Loch Fyne. Brewin Dolphin investment managers is the title sponsor of the event.

This is my second time as ambassador of this very unique event held in one of the most stunning places in the world. I remember the first time I ever went- I arrived on a RIB early in the morning and coming into the harbour I was followed in by dolphins, and there was that beautiful crisp air and stunning mountain scenery. A fantastic memory to have.

The event has something for everyone and it doesn't matter if its raining or beautiful sunshine as its such a great event, I love it.

Everybody is friendly. The village is so small so it has such a community feel and its not pretentious in any way. Its a great weekend of sailing and I really, really enjoy it. It is special for me as I get a sense of coming home. In this world of commercialism it is unique.

It's a long way from the kit boat you started with to ambassador for a major event
Tell us. How you managed the years to Olympic gold and talk us through your first win however insignificant, and how you moved forward.

Shirley Robertson: I suppose the first big moment that I can remember was that I had just been sailing with my dad and doing a little bit of club racing. We were members of a very small family club and they invited some RYA instructors in for the weekend to train the youngsters. It was the first time I was actually not sailing with my dad. I helmed the boat on my own and at the end of the weekend I got a certificate and passed with distinction. It wasn't even a proper RYA certificate, somebody at the club had designed it. A big moment for me as I was on my own . I felt I can do it on my own.

So following on I persuaded my dad to buy me a used mirror. I sailed it around, tried to borrow crew and won the odd club regatta. But after that it was hard to get a crew with friends moving on to do other things.

So I asked if I could get a laser, it was quite a lot of money, quite a big commitment, and my dad made me promise that I would sail it all the next year and we would see where that would lead. So he bought me the boat. At that time there was not a women's class in the Olympics but I just raced with the guys. I was spotted by the men's Scottish coach at a regatta, not that I was winning, but I think he spotted some kind of tenacity I suppose. It was really windy, and I just kept going however many times I was pulled out the water I just kept at it. I was invited from that, to train with the men's senior squad. I was not even fifteen yet. For me that was really my big break. It was the first time I had sailed in the winter and the first time I was properly training and very much in at the deep end. It was pretty good though.

After that 18 years elapses before Barcelona Olympics. What were the major steps during that time?

Shirley Robertson: I think a lot of it in sailing is gaining experience and I did a lot of Laser events abroad, on a shoe string like we all did then. We were second in the Woman's Laser Europeans. That was my first big international event win. There wasn't much wind and that was a big step for me and a medal under the belt.

How old were you then?

Shirley Robertson: I was just 18 so that was a big deal for me and it sped me on. We had quite an active women's fleet in the men's as there wasn't a women's Laser Class at the time.

Do you think a young person today would be able to achieve similar success without sponsorship within the first few years of starting.

Shirley Robertson: I think sport in Britain is very different now. We did not sail much in the winter. If you were lucky you had one trip abroad. Now even at youth level it is a lot more professional than that, and that needs funding. Saying that, in the UK the opportunity and resources are much better now than they ever were. I got sponsored a bit by my parents but that generally would not happen now as experts and sports bodies are better for spotting and nurturing talent. At youth level you have got to have parental support until you get up the ladder a little bit and then there is much more Lottery support. That said I do not think it could be better for British sport now.

Your sailing years have seen the era of athletic sponsorship arrive and grow to the multi million dollar industry it now is. When during this time did sponsorship become essential for you to continue your career?

Shirley Robertson: Olympics sailing is an expensive sport and in many disciplines you need resources whether it is for equipment or coaching. I think whoever had the best resources was in the running, whether that was personal or family wealth, but that was it in the past, that was the culture of sport sponsorship.

I did not have that kind of background and from early on it was important for me to raise money in other ways, whether it was from the council or commercial money from sponsorship, or whatever. I somehow found a way. The amounts that's required now at international level has increased with the volume of training and competition that people do. I think that now an Olympic sailor sails 50 days a year most of that with a coach and most of that abroad. Its very different from that when I was being coached.

Could you put a figure on that for someone who is just getting into the Olympic Class and has got a chance of a place, what would their season cost them?

Shirley Robertson: That would depend on the boats but take a Laser for example. The Laser hasn't got as much equipment so costs are lower, but coaching cost are high as there is a lot of physiology and all kinds of instructors involved. It is hard to say. In the Ynling campaign we were looking at a cost in excess of half a million. It was expensive.

Who was your first sponsor and how did you actually go about getting it? Was it done by somebody especially for you or did you do it your self?

Shirley Robertson: The first thing was you got grants from people. The school also would apply for me, get a few hundred quid and buy a set of sails. And that kind of thing helped. When I look back I wonder how it could have helped as it was such a little amount of money. Somehow you just made it work. The first I got was parental support. The first commercial sponsorship was Millars Civil Engineering, which is a Scottish company and this was really partly through connections. At the time it seemed like a fortune, and it made a big difference, but in today's world it was a very small amount of money.

Tell me, you have a University education, did you ever have to make a decision on taking a career in commerce or sailing full time ?

Shirley Robertson: It was an ongoing decision. There was a point when I finished my degree and I applied for a Masters. I actually did two weeks of it and it was the year before the trials for Barcelona. I remember sitting in the class and thinking about if I want to go to the Olympics, I can't spend a year doing this. I left after two weeks and so in a way that was the turning point. I always intended to go back but never did. So there you are, I did not realise at the time that you needed to commit much more time than I was.

You have got two Olympic Golds a big achievement, do you think that is the peak of your sailing achievements or do you think there is still more to go for?

Shirley Robertson: That's always a hard question to answer. Whatever I do I am still very motivated whether that is in broadcasting or in sailing. So today we will see how that goes. Its very hard to top an Olympic medal because there is an incredible intensity to it. An incredible focus and you actually do not think about much else. It is all about focus in the years preceding it because it only happens every four years, and making sure your performance comes together all for that one week. That year is quite hard to replicate in the business or other events in sport. For everything to come together for me twice is quite something, and then there is a very special moment, especially the first one in Sydney, the one in Sydney Harbour, that was quite something. You get a buzz out of a lot of different things you know. It was something very much like the sailing I do now. I like to go fast in the Extreme 40s.

Do you actually see the move from the Yinglings to skippering an Extreme 40 as a natural progression rather that taking part in the London Olympics ?

Shirley Robertson: Is it not really a natural progression. It was just an opportunity at the time. One of the nice things about our sport is that you can kind of step into another arena and then you are learning again. I like that mentally and in racing it is pretty challenging. It is not often in my career when I have been scared but it is quite nice to have a bit of fear on the Extreme 40s. It is good to sail with men, as I was not coming in as any kind of expert.

How do you feel about being the only female sailing amongst a group of men with a lot of experience in that discipline ?

Shirley Robertson: Well I like that about the sport. I am accomplished in some areas and different arenas. I like the men's fine tuning, it is quite nice to be climbing a steep learning curve again. I enjoy that. As for being the only women, a lot of people ask that, the reality is it is all kind of focused on your own kind of performance and your own team and you don't really think about it.

You are a patron of the Ellen McArthur trust do you involve your self directly, do you take children sailing or what do you actually do for the Trust ?

Shirley Robertson: I have been on their trips with the children and the odd day. Its quite easy to have a barbecue and go sailing in the morning with them. I am also used in an ambassadorial role trying to raise money to pay for it. It's a great charity, is so well run, it's not that big.

If you make a donation you can see where it's going. I love it. If you give me £500 today it will pay for one child to go out for a week in a boat and I think that is quite nice to know. I would like to know that if I was donating. Ellen is hands on and she runs quite a few of the weeks and every child will see her on one of their trips. It has a lovely kind of family atmosphere and the kids really enjoy it. It is such a relief and a break from a life of doctors, hospitals and parents. It is very much a sense of freedom.

And now you are on your second career of BBC, Olympics, Channel 4 and now a regular spot on CNN. Did this come naturally to you or were you very nervous the first time you had do something live. Will this be a beginning of you hosting generally on TV? Do you have any series planned ?

Shirley Robertson: Oh that's a lot of questions. There were always sailing DVD's to be done and I hosted some of them and the like, so really it has just came naturally. I was a bit apprehensive but I am a reasonable communicator with a little bit of natural aptitude towards it. I spent 6 months at BBC South doing a kind of apprenticeship which was fabulous. They put me into situations where I was definitely nervous.

I went for my first live programme on an ice rink at Basingstoke and I kind of choreographed how it would work. We were just about to go live when one of the girls fell over and cut her leg and was crying and with live television you just have to kind of make it work. I don't think I really did. I always think about that in horror. You get used to it don't you, and doing it well. I love it. I particularly love my job with CNN. We travel the world and see all kinds of sailing things

I am very much involved with the production of the show and the feel of the show as well. I don't just turn up and say my words.

You get great access with CNN, it's like the BBC a fabulous way to work. A three letter word that gets access everywhere. So for example this year we were the first in Valencia to interview both Ernesto and Larry and apart from the press conference we got the only interviews afterwards.

And you took those interviews ?

Shirley Robertson: Of course I did, it's my show and I was the only person to sail on both boats and we get absolutely tremendous access. A lot of that is to do with the brand and being known in the sport and being trusted amongst the sailors. That gets you a long way. I quite enjoy that and when we come up with ideas on how it is going to work and we pull it off which is part of the fun, I love that.

On our last show we went to see Groupama come in. We did it all on the Jules Verne Trophy and it was great on the helicopter just before it got dark we were on the lookout when they crossed the line. It was good. I love that when we get a moment of drama and you get a bit of a shiver up the back of your neck like on the first morning when the boats went out for the America's Cup. It's a great moment you never forget.

Have you got any other series outside of sailing TV planned ?

Shirley Robertson: No I haven't. I would like to.

My final question is, you are 42 and have two children so when does Shirley Robertson stop being a sailor and become Shirley Robertson TV presenter and event speaker full time ?

Shirley Robertson: I hope I never stop sailing. I really enjoy that aspect of life and I would miss it. I miss that about Olympic sailing too. I wish I had been in Palma. I miss that feeling when you get up in the morning, and you are going out to race. It's a different kind of feeling with the Extremes as it is tempered with fear - it's great.

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