Stuart Bithell and Luke Patience, Britain’s in-form 470 sailing pairing and World Championship silver medalists, often reflect on the moment they heard the 2012 Olympics would be held in London.
“I was up at Luke’s house in Scotland. We were teenagers, and he was a good buddy of mine, but we had never sailed together as a partnership,” said Bithell, 25.
“I switched on the TV news as the announcement was being made. I think we both decided from that moment we would aim for the Olympics.
“Now we’ve got a good chance of being there – and together – we talk quite regularly about the irony of being together when we heard.”
Bithell, from Rochdale, teamed up with Patience four-years later, and the pair have exceeded even the most optimistic expectations during their relatively short time together. At the 2009 World Championships – after being in the boat together for just two-weeks – they won a silver medal.
A string of podium finishes have saw them climb to fourth in the 470 world rankings by the end of 2010. A silver medal at the Sailing World Championships in Perth earlier this month confirmed them as front runners to represent Great Britain in the 470 at next year’s Olympics.
“Our performance in Perth will have been really good for our chances of selection but it is not the be all and end all,” said Bithell.
“You assume the selection process will be result-based, which puts us at the top of the pack, but there may be other factors.
“We predicted that the big events like the World Championships in Perth will be the most important, but you don’t always know.
“We work on the basis that the selectors are always watching. It’s probably a good thing because it keeps us on our toes.”
Bithell is sensible to approach the selection process with trepidation. Nick Rogers, a silver medalist at Athens and Beijing, and Chris Grube are a formidable British 470 partnership. While Nic Asher and Elliot Willis, the outsiders for Olympic selection, are also doing well at the moment.
“Nick and Chris are good friends of ours and we dine together at events, but Nic and Elliot prefer to do their own thing,” said Bithell.
“It’s a bit frustrating not knowing for certain whether we will be going to London, but we treated Perth as an Olympic trials. We focused all out effort and energy on performing there, which we did. Now we are preparing as though we will definitely be at the Olympics. All our focus is on hitting our peak for the Olympic sailing events next year.”
Bithell was introduced to sailing as a seven-year-old on Hollingworth lake, Rochdale, and quickly adapted to life on the water with his father’s crew.
“When I first began sailing everything was centred around having fun,” said Bithell.
“Hollingworth lake was a very nice, pleasant place to start out and whenever I can go back I do. My parents still live round there and I go out on the lake with my dad. He’s not an Olympic athlete but he’s not bad. He’s a big sailing fan and I’m sure he’s very proud of what I’m doing.”
Bithell began sailing full time at 18-years-old as part of the Team GB development scheme.
“We weren’t actually getting paid, we were just getting coaching support and expenses,” said Bithell.
“After I teamed up with Luke and we came second in the World Championships, I started to realise that we were a good solid team and had a shot at getting to the Olympics. Few teams are as good friends with each other as me and Luke and I think that’s absolutely a positive. We started racing against each other when we were 15 and became good friends because we were the same age and had a lot in common.
“We went head-to-head quite a few times when we were younger so we know each other competitively as well. We just connected and my strength’s really complement Luke’s.
“We do gym work together and spend a lot of time together off the water, more than most would advise probably.
“But we very rarely argue on the water, whereas we see other teams – usually the Italians – arguing a lot.”
Bithell relocated from Rochdale to Portland – where next year’s Olympic sailing events will be held four-years-ago.
“I’m quite familiar with the waters around Portland and Weymouth.
“If no competitor from the other countries had been allowed to practice there it would be a huge advantage, but the London Olympic Organising Committee have allowed other countries to train there. At the Beijing Olympics nobody was allowed to go out on the waters before the competition started.”
The 470 is a doublehanded dinghy with one hull and a centreboard. The name 470 refers to the 4.7m length of the boat. It is relatively easy to handle and is often used by sailing schools to introduce people to high-performance boats.
The 470 has been an Olympic Class since 1976, when men and women competed against each other.
At the 1988 Seoul Olympics separate events were established for men and women and it has been the same ever since.
Mat Belcher and Malcolm Page, the Australian duo are favourite to win the men’s event at London 2012.