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Comeback kid: John Gimson’s long road to the Olympics

Written by 21st July 2021 Featured-post, Tokyo 2020

John Gimson has been the nearly man of British Olympic sailing for longer than he cares to remember.

It was back in 2005 that he began a roller-coaster journey in various classes that has seen him overcome disappointment and bad luck to finally win Olympic selection in the Nacra 17 this summer.

After so many near misses, what will be going through his mind on the start line of his first Olympic race in Enoshima?

“Business as usual,” replies Gimson without missing a beat. “People deal with it in different ways, but it is just another sailing regatta.

“Having said that, I have been tuning partner at two other Olympics, I have learned a lot over the last few years and we’ve had a long trials process.

“We are putting everything into these Games. We’re very excited, but we’re going there to medal.”

John Gimson Anna Burnet

It was a nail-biting selection process for the sole British Nacra 17 spot at Tokyo, with Nicola Boniface and Ben Saxton narrowly losing out.

But four years ago it was Gimson who was the one left at home. “It was actually really motivating,” he says. “I thought I’ve just got to put together something better for the next cycle and correct some things I did badly last time.”

After the Games he began sailing with different people, looking for the magic combination that makes a great team.

“The team is everything. That’s the big thing I learned from Iain and Bart,” he says, referring to his days as tuning partner for Percy and Simpson in the run-up to their Star silver at Weymouth 2012.

“That whole Star cycle was a massive turning point for me, seeing how detailed they were in terms of every element of the boat and how they sailed. No stone was left unturned.”

Gimson was ready to set about his own Star campaign, only for the boat to be dropped as an Olympic class after Weymouth.

Incredibly Gimson had experienced the same thing just four years earlier, when his dreams of racing the Tornado catamaran were shattered as the class was dropped after Beijing.

“Having just bought a brand new boat, that was a really bad moment,” he admits.

But Gimson was resolute in his pursuit of an Olympic place, saying: “I knew that I needed to have the right opportunity, a bit of luck and I had to find the right person to sail with.”

John Gimson Anna Burnet

Back to his campaign for Tokyo: “I spent six months sailing with different people but Anna [Burnet] was head and shoulders above everyone else.

“She is really good at moving around the boat, whereas I’m a bit less agile. She takes care of all that smoothness and in the Nacra you need to have really quick reactions.

“That is how the boat flies. I always feel a bit lazy as helm. It really is a crew-driven boat. I feel bad watching her do all the work!”

Gimson, aged 36, from Congleton, Cheshire, grew up sailing National 12s at Rudyard SC in Staffordshire.

He moved onto the 29er, becoming youth national champion and winning silver medals at the Worlds and Europeans in his teens.

Then it was the 420, in which he became national champion with Pippa Wilson.

Gimson spent eight years racing keelboats to fund his early Olympic aspirations, helming a variety of boats owned by keen sailor Eamonn O’Nolan.

He won major regattas at the helm of a Melges 24, Etchells, Farr 45 and a TP52. His sailing CV has also seen him work as tuning partner for Sarah Ayton, Sarah Webb and Pippa Wilson during their gold medal-winning Beijing 2008 cycle in the Yngling, and encompasses time with the Artemis America’s Cup challenge, sailing the AC45, the team’s first foiling boat, in the build-up to the 2013 Americas Cup.

All of it, he says, has been fed into the mix.

Photo by Karl Bridgeman/Getty Images for British Olympic Association

“The one thing I have tried to say to the younger Finn guys [after the Finn was deselected as an Olympic class last year], is that the boat really doesn’t matter. It’s what you learn in it that matters. Each campaign, you progress, even if you move classes.”

Of all his sailing pre-Nacra, who has influenced him the most?

“Everyone has brought something to the table,” he says, before singling out Stuart Bithell as “one of the most unbelieveable, natural sailors I’ve sailed with…a phenomenal talent”.

Gimson has had an incredible journey thus far, but looking back, would he have had it any other way?

“No. It’s been sad to not go to the Olympics earlier, but in a lot of ways I don’t think I would have been ready to go and stand a chance to medal. It’s taken all the lessons I’ve learned along the way to get to a point where we know what we are doing.

“Not that I’d have said that back then.”

First published on Yachts and Yachting

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