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The Women's Sports Alliance

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Shirley Robertson – British sailing pioneer on securing podiums and seeking parity

“In terms of gender (equality) there’s been massive improvement in Olympic sailing, but in terms of elsewhere, progress is really frustrating,” Shirley Robertson tells the WSA.


“It's very much a male dominated sport, but next year is potentially a big year…”



The land-locked hills of Clackmannashire in central Scotland may seem an unlikely place for a history-making British sailor’s journey to have begun, but Shirley Robertson began defying expectations from a young age.


Long before Ellen MacArthur and Dee Caffari set their landmark ‘around the world’ achievements in the mid-2000’s Robertson was breaking barriers and putting British Sailing on the global map.


Her father, who had previously served his national service with the navy, paved the way for her passion to grow by painstakingly creating a Miracle dinghy piece-by-piece in their garage.


By the age of seven Shirley was regularly taking to the water with him, before embarking on her solo career and being talent-spotted after winning the Scottish Ladies’ Championships when she was 14.


“I really remember that feeling of independence and being brave (going out alone) and I still kind of have that today when I’m in a boat by myself,” she recalls with pride.


“I was the kind of child that was quite competitive and I didn’t like to lose, but what I enjoyed about sailing was that I could keep working on it and there were always areas to improve.”



AN OLYMPIC LEGACY STARS IN SPAIN


17 years after first taking to the waters in Scotland Shirley reached the summit of her sport by qualifying for and competing at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics in the ‘Europe class’.


She would finish ninth. An encouraging start to her Olympic career, during a challenging time for elite sailors in Great Britain.


“It seems a long time ago now and it’s hard to believe there was a world before UK Sport came in with funding, but it made you appreciate everything,” she recalls.


“Back then you had to think through every decision you made very clearly because if you had a coach you were paying for them by yourself, often on your own credit card and trying to figure out how it (financially) would all work.”


Four years after her Olympic debut Shirley would “agonisingly” miss out on a medal by just two points and place fourth at the Athens 1996 Games, but her potential was clear.


“I've spoken to lots of sports people who finished fourth and you should always fear them at the next Olympics,” Shirley tells the WSA.


“It definitely gives you an added incentive to work hard and really focus.”



BECOMING PART OF A ‘MEDAL WINNING MACHINE’


Which worked, with World and European medals following en route to the Sydney Games in 2000.


There Shirley becoming the first British woman to win a solo Olympic sailing gold and first female from her nation to stand on top of the podium in the sport since Dorothy Wright 80 years earlier.


At Athens 2004, after joining Sarah Ayton as well as Sarah Webb in the ‘Yingling class’, the trio – affectionately dubbed the ‘three blondes in a boat’ – claimed that title as well.


It saw Shirley become the first British woman in history, among any sports, to win a gold medal at successive Olympic Games.


She understandably looks back fondly at that period of her career.


“The timing (of Sydney and then Athens) was just right as we had a massive pool of talent with people like Ben Ainslie, Iain Percy, myself as well as in other classes,” says Shirley, who was recently bestowed with another honour and named ‘godmother’ for British cruise liner ‘Ambition’.

“We just needed that little bit of a cash injection and UK Sport provided that.


“We went from a team which had won one bronze medal in Barcelona and two silvers in Athens, to topping the medal table in Sydney with three golds and five medals in total.


“That was the start and then like most British Olympic sports they were then able to put in a pretty impressive structure around it to create the ‘medal making factory’ we’ve seen since.”


Great Britain again topped the medal table at Beijing 2008, won more medals than any other nation at London 2012 and again stood at the summit of the Olympic sailing standings at both Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020.



WOMEN OFTEN FRUSTRATED IN ‘MALE DOMINATED’ SPORT


Shirley ended her Olympic career after missing out on a place at the Beijing 2008 Games, but has remained actively involved in the sport and in addition to launching her own highly successful podcast, she has become a core element of the BBC’s and CNN’s sailing coverage.


The four-time Olympian has continued competing away from the dinghy classes though and has extensive experience in the world of racing larger yachts.


That though is a world where she feels the greatest frustration.


The world’s highest-profile events, such as the America’s Cup and Vandee Globe, traditionally see leading roles given to male sailors.


While the first all-female crew to sail around the world last year and SailGP’s ‘Women’s Pathway’ have helped push the agenda further, “progress is slow” according to Shirley.


“It’s frustrating because it’s still very much a male-dominated sport,” she tells the WSA.


“It's run largely by men and particularly in the sort of disciplines where owners choose the crew often on those big boats, you’ll have 20 people, but it’s actually quite rare to see a woman still.



COULD 2024 ‘CHANGE THE GAME’ FOR FEMALE YACHT SAILORS?

Supporting and mentoring the next generation of female sailors - Image from @shirleysail


She feels that 2024 has the potential to be a seminal moment for the sport though.


“We obviously have an Olympics but we also have an America's Cup in Europe and for the first time we will have a women's America's Cup event,” she states.


“It might not be perfect but it’s the start of women operating at a high level in the biggest Arena in our sport, which is obviously the America's Cup.


“Overall, I’m still slightly frustrated, but I'm also hopeful.”



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