The quiet golden achiever

GOLDEN ACHIEVER: Tom Ashley Windsurfing Olympic gold medalist at home in Takapuna.
GOLDEN ACHIEVER: Tom Ashley Windsurfing Olympic gold medalist at home in Takapuna.

Olympic gold medallist Tom Ashley's blue eyes trace the edge of the table back to an empty bottle of apple juice he has long since finished drinking.

The long fingers of his right hand rise up to meet his forehead. He runs those fingers across his brow and stares down at that bottle for a second more, before looking up and leaning forward.

Ashley, the reigning Olympic boardsailing champion, looks uncomfortable sitting in Devonport's Vauxhall Cafe. Geez, the guy looks almost pained.

Ashley has been thinking about that day in Beijing, August 20, 2008; the day he became the 36th Kiwi to get a Olympic gold medal slung around his neck.

"For the time immediately afterwards, even until quite recently, I couldn't actually think of it," he says, eyes focused straight ahead.

"I didn't enjoy thinking of it. It was pretty stressful and my overwhelming emotion afterwards was just relief, that nothing had gone wrong.

"So afterwards it wasn't a great joy, it was more like, `sh--, thank god it's over'. I still don't think about it that much."

Ashley is anonymous, pretty much ignored in the quiet North Shore cafe.

It's typical for a man who popped up, at the age of 24, won an Olympic gold, and fell back, almost seamlessly into life, a feat rare among Kiwi Olympic indivi-dual gold medallists.

The 27-year-old's discomfort talking about his 2008 victory is not surprising if you know him; a polite, almost quiet man who oozes intensity. As 2008 coach Grant Beck – who has coached seven Kiwi sailors to Olympic medals – says, Ashley's an "an unbelievable intellect and very, very, very intense".

It's an attribute as evident as his towering height, his receding hairline or his slightly lazy left eye.

He's an athlete driven not by the feeling of winning or of standing the highest on the podium, but by the processes that get him there, the confidence a perfect preparation gives him.

The location of his Olympic gold – "somewhere in a draw in our house, I don't know" – underlines how Ashley views sport, and life.

"If it wasn't, winning in Beijing would have felt a lot differently I guess," he says.

"People talk a lot in sport about mental strength and being able to deal with pressure and confidence and all of these things. That's psychology.

"For me, I get mental strength and confidence when I know I've prepared perfectly.

"When I've done everything I possibly could have done. If something's gone wrong in preparation, I can't get the confidence, and I can't talk myself into being mentally strong."

IF 2011 had went to plan, Ashley would never be in this cafe talking about Beijing, how he first got started in sailing or which Milan Kundera book is the best read (Immortality, according to Ashley).

He wouldn't be waiting for his wife Mariana to finish work up the road so he can give her a ride home. He wouldn't even be in New Zealand.

The Olympic champion would be training on the English south coast in preparation for the 2011 Weymouth and Portland International Regatta, a series of races which serve as a pre-Olympic test event, starting on July 31.

Thanks to a touch of groin pain he first noticed four weeks ago on a training ride with his surgeon, and good friend, Mat Brick, he's not. Brick examined it, and Ashley was under the knife a week later. Ashley's femur was slightly the wrong shape and, because of that, was gradually beginning to wear away cartilage in his hip socket.

"It was worse than he thought when he got in there and I probably wouldn't have made it another year without some pretty serious problems if he hadn't fixed it," he says.

It has been two weeks since the op and things are feeling a lot better. Ashley's begun training again – some cycling, some gym work, but is yet to get back out on the water.

"Maybe next week," he says.

While Ashley is recovering, Jon-Paul Tobin, his sole rival for the slot available to New Zealand in the RS:X boardsailing regatta at the 2012 London Olympics, will be going hard off the Dorset coast.

There is one spot available for the nation's two top windsurfers next year, two athletes that could conceivably win gold and silver if the rules were different.

For Ashley and Tobin to make the Olympics, there's no magic time to beat, no placing in the field to gain, no international competitors to specifically blitz.

Their goal is simple. Be better than the other bloke. Push yourself as hard as you possibly can because you know he's doing the exact same thing.

Anything less isn't good enough. Anything less means a seat in front of the telly next August instead a spot in that fleet of Olympic sailboards off Dorset.

Their battle for that spot is filled with the same fierceness that pitted rowers Mahe Drysdale and Rob Waddell against each other in 2007 and 2008, ahead of the Beijing Olympic Games.

Ashley's absence and Tobin's appearance in Weymouth later this month gives Tobin the slight edge.

But really it comes down mid-December, when the two compete in the RS:X world championships off Perth. From that regatta the Kiwi sailing selectors will chose who will fly the silver fern next year.

"It's tough but it's not something you can give too much thought to," Ashley says.

"You are racing against other people but the most important thing is to get yourself to the highest level possible.

"I've got to get myself into the best space possible and hope that's enough."

Ashley's Olympic campaign began in November 2009 after a year at Auckland University. Results since have been good with both Ashley and Tobin regular top five finishers in RS:X events in the past 18 months.

But along with his injury, the last six weeks have been frustrating for Ashley.

He contracted a bad sinus infection ahead of his last event the Skandia Sail for Gold regatta in early June, also in Weymouth, meaning he finished down the field, in ninth.

For someone as dependent on a good build-up and the confidence that gave him, the illness stuffed him.

"As often happens when things are going too smoothly, you get a little shock and it wakes you up."

BORN IN Auckland, Ashley lived in Hong Kong for three years before moving back to Devonport where he has been based since.

The Westlake Boys' High student first got into sailing through his sailmaking father at age eight but it wasn't until he was 14 when he thought about getting into boardsailing.

His first sailboard was a birthday present from his parents.

"It was quite a surprise. I was keen to start windsurfing, but not on an Olympic board and hadn't really contemplated doing it seriously," he says.

The new board led to a deal with his parents.

Ashley, who always wanted to be a professional sailor, and his parents agreed that if he could get an A bursary in the sixth form, he would be allowed to take a year off from education and go boardsailing.

"So I took the year and that turned into nine years before I got to university," he says with a laugh.

After a year training in Buzios, Brazil, where Ashley first met Mariana and learnt the first of three languages he has pick up during his travels, he went on to win the 2002 IMCO world youth championship in Spain.

More placings in top regattas followed, as well as an appearance in the 2004 Athens Olympics, where he finished a creditable 10th in the Mistral class, the predecessor to RS:X ("I learnt a lot from it. A lot of what not to do.")

Ashley continued to improve after Athens, coming second in the 2006 RS:X world championships in Italy and winning it in 2008 in New Zealand.

Beijing, and that uneasy gold followed, with the Kiwi beating out Frenchman Julien Bontemps and rising Israeli star Shahar Zubari.

Post-Bejing, Ashley needed a break, so he headed to university to study first year law – which he hopes will be his vocation after he's finished boardsailing. He excelled in the lecture halls the way he did on the race course, getting five A+s and three As in his eight papers.

"I was still doing an Olympic campaign, but [university] was something I had to do because I knew I had to get away from the scene for a little bit."

FAST FORWARD more than 18 months, and that Olympic campaign is reaching its important months.

Once he's feeling good on the board, the first step back will be a RS:X world cup meet in Melbourne in November, before the big one commences, those world champs in Perth.

Ashley, with the support of his wife, coach Dave Robertson, Brick and an army of others, is confident he can do it.

ASHLEY ANSWERS a phone call from the Sunday Star-Times a week later. He's asked how training is going.

Pretty good, he says. He's still easing back into things, but he's got into the gym today and another short bike ride.

The past week's poor spell of weather has kept him off the water, which has been frustrating.

He's asked again what would happen if Tobin got the nod ahead of him in December.

Ashley's annoyed at the question, not just because he was asked it the week before at the cafe, but because the thought of not making London entering his head angers him.

"I don't really want to think about that to be honest. At the moment the focus is on making sure that I do the job," he says.

He pauses.

Instead of a desk, this time he traces over the edge of his experiences over the three years since Beijing, and all the years before, to the five important months ahead. His mind falls away to that one singular goal, London, and all the processes that need to happen to ensure he gets there.

All the processes that make an Olympic champion. "You can't plan to fail."

Sunday Star Times