My introduction to windsurfing began when I was about seven, and my dad got back into the sport after 15 years away from it with work and children. I used to stand watching him sail round a loch on an old board. It looked really cool. So the next summer, while my dad was windsurfing at Halifax Reservoir at Wainstalls, I got to ride on the back of his board and had a try myself. It was not totally successful, as adult sails are not quite the size for an 8 year-old. Finally, we got a beginner's board and, after three weeks of practice, I was getting the hang of it, a really great feeling. Halifax Sailing Club does not have any windsurf training, so I was self-taught and sailing with adults was the best way to begin.
The following spring we found out about Team 15, which is a Royal Yachting Association (RYA) initiative to get more young people into sailing. The North Area was our nearest and, at the time, was in its infancy. There were four other clubs and me (I was the only person from my club!) and, when we got together for four race events, there were only 13 sailors. Now, when my 13 year-old brother races in Team 15 (under 15 years old), there are over 50 sailors. I was sailing on my dad's old board and had never raced before nor had any training, but it was great fun, and I managed to win my first races. In the final event of the year, I had to race against two 15 year-olds, who were the European champions at the time. Wow, what an experience, even if they did beat me! I was also trying out other aspects of windsurfing, such as Formula sailing (standard), Wave sailing (on the sea) and Freestyle (tricks etc.), which are a bit like skateboarding on the water.
A year later, I made it onto the next rung of the windsurfing ladder, when I won a place in the North-West Zone squad, which consists of about 20 sailors under 16 who want to race. We had weekends of training, which was awesome as, up to that point, I had had no professional training. I also began competing in the UK Windsurfing Association races, both on the sea and on reservoirs. At the end of each season, there is a big race at Weymouth, the Youth and Masters event, limited to under 17s and over 40s. The first time that I entered, I won my fleet, which was amazing. Dad and I knew very little about the structure of the training squads, so I did not apply for the national squad that year but, on the advice of my coach, I entered the next year and won a place.
September 2007 saw me at my first Junior Squad training, a weekend away in a training camp. There were only 12 in the squad and loads to learn, new fitness regimes, training diaries to be kept, cooking lessons from the Olympic Squad chef, and that was before we began to do our windsurf training. It was quite a big jump from chilled-out training to constant focus, sending in Squad diaries and watching all my nutrition, but really exciting. The Olympic windsurfers are some of the fittest of athletes, so this was the beginning of where I want to go, which meant core exercises on fitness ball, strength training, aerobic exercise and lots of water and healthy eating, with perhaps the occasional treat.
The board I was sailing on was a Techno 293 one design, which means all sailors have the same board and sail and should mean that no one has any advantage. The fact that I had grown five inches over the summer, taking me to nearly six feet, was not at all to my advantage, and it created some interesting learning curves. I was to compete in my first international event in Italy in March, which had some interesting weather, permitting only one day's racing out of five, which was far from ideal. It was a great experience racing in a fleet of 60 sailors, speaking a range of languages from Polish to Italian. The Italians were fantastic hosts. We had pasta parties every lunchtime, to give us the energy for racing, even if we didn't race. I also got to see the Coliseum! I learnt that I needed skills to overcome nerves before races and to learn to follow my intuition about choosing the correct sail and equipment for different conditions.
When I returned to the UK, I made the decision to try to race on the Olympic board at the International Sailing Federation (ISAF) trials, two weeks later. This meant racing with people on the Youth Squad who were two years older than me and on a board that I had only sailed three times. So dad took me to Pwllheli for six days in our miniature caravan. The RS:X (Olympic) board was fantastic. It felt just right. After struggling in light winds on the Techno board, because of my height and weight, I won races in low winds on the RS:X, which was great for my confidence. At the end of the event, I came in sixth place and received the Best Newcomer award. After speaking with the Youth Performance Manager, it was decided that I should move up to the Youth level and sail on the RS:X, another learning curve, and I was out of the training cycle and having to teach myself again.
So I have raced this year (2008) in the UK windsurfing events and got second place in the whole series, which was great. Also I was eligible to compete in the European Youth Championships in Sicily, which meant trying to find funding. We are a family which usually has summer holidays in Scotland, coping with the heat. I was lucky to get funding from the John Merrick Sailing Trust, as there was no way my parents could have funded the trip and we get little help from the RYA. So ten days in 35-degree heat with very little wind was an amazing experience, sailing again in a huge fleet and watching the countries which seemed to excel at this event, namely Israel and Italy, possibly because their windsurfers are accustomed to heat and low winds. I managed 30th place, not ideal but it gave me a plan of what I need to learn and where I need to go.
Back to the Youth and Masters event in September again and a big race to give me a place on the Youth Squad but the wind gods were not on my side and my nerves got the better of me. I only managed 10th place, when I had hoped to be in the top five. Thankfully, I had the chance to show that I was capable of better things. With the support of school and my parents, I was able to compete in the Skandia ‘Sail for Gold' week, racing against our Olympic sailors, Nick Dempsey and Bryony Shaw. I had a great week, even beating bronze medallist Bryony in one race and ending up third British youth overall. This performance helped me to win a place in the Youth Squad and we received the letter a week later. There was much cheering in my house!
So my new coach was Bryony's Olympic coach, Dom Tidey. He is really inspiring and our training has upped to another level. There is still a lot of fitness work, plus a move from five hours land training a week to ten, psychology coaching and a constant evaluation of what worked on the water and what did not. There are 12 of us in the squad and the next level is the Olympic Development squad. This has only six sailors, so the options are getting smaller but the possible rewards closer. I have had the dream of racing for my country for quite a while now. Windsurfing isn't the obvious choice, as only one sailor is chosen for each discipline at the Olympics. Maybe I'd be better trying out at the velodrome, as my second love is speed cycling, but I prefer the water and sailing fast. My experiences this year have confirmed that that is where I aspire to be, meeting and sailing with Bryony and Nick, meeting our Yorkshire Olympians and Para Olympians at the Yorkshire Icons event at Headingley, and trying to do the best that I can to achieve as much as possible in my sport.
At the moment I am 4th in the UK, so just miss out on direct funding from Sports Aid but I may get some from Yorkshire Sports Aid in 2009. This would be great as I will need a new board this year and they cost over £2,000 and my sails cost £600 each. The kit is also quite fragile, often needing expensive repairs. My parents have been fantastic with their support, driving me around the country to the various events. As Weymouth will be the Olympic venue, there are lots of trips down there, as well as training. I love my sport and when I don't get to sail I feel very lost, yet all this work never feels arduous. It has a purpose and gives me a great focus. I am sure a few of my teachers would hope that I felt the same about all my lessons.
My aim is always to be higher in the rankings. I won one of the national ranking events in October against stiff competition, so I know it is possible. I also hope to be picked for the Youth World and European Championships, which means a lot of work ahead. My ultimate aim is to be chosen to race at the ISAF Youth World Championships in Brazil but I know there are many who want that one place. I hope that my experience of sailing in cold northern waters will help, as the qualifying rounds are in Largs in Scotland.
My goal would be to be the Olympic sailor in 2016. 2012 may be a little premature, but who knows? Wish me luck.