Editor’s Note: Shirley Roberston, double Olympic gold medalist and presenter of CNN’s Mainsail, talks about her life-altering achievement at the Sydney 2000 Olympics.
How "the girl from Scotland" won her first Olympic gold medal
Why Sydney is far more than just a place to race: from rugged headlands to bustling harbors
Robertson recalls battling back from 16th place to secure the win
“So what does it feel like?”
“Hmmm …cool I suppose.” I didn’t know what to say, I hadn’t been back to Sydney for 14 years and now, here I was standing by the Opera House, looking at where I had leaped onto the top of the podium.
I was the girl from Scotland, with the biggest smile, winning what was to be her first Olympic gold medal.
I’m not sure, hand on heart, that I genuinely thought it would happen. So much had to come together at the right time and Sydney was my third Olympic campaign. I knew how easy it was to get it wrong, how narrow the margin is between hero and zero.
But standing here 14 years on, waiting for a reaction, tears even, felt hollow, it didn’t feel like “my place.” Perhaps too much time had passed – children, work, another gold medal.
My colleague rolled his eyes in disbelief, hoping for some sort of “moment.” How could I not feel “it?” Wasn’t it the greatest memory of my life? Wasn’t it right here that my everything changed forever? What was wrong with me?
Motoring out under that iconic bridge, the harbor coming into view, I was instantly struck by how busy it was, everywhere I looked the Harbor filled with sails. Didn’t anyone here have a job to go to? So much activity. It was alive.
The bustling harbor is stunningly varied in its beauty. From the harsh inhospitality of the Heads, waves crashing onto bare rock, to the sheltered bays and lush vegetation.
It’s no easy place to sail competitively. You really need to use all your senses to do well out here.
If the wind shifts, you can really smell the warmth of the city, another slight shift and you can smell the rich pine of the park – or if the sea breeze is on its way, that all changes again, to the fresh aromas of the ocean.
Even the color of the water can help give clues to the shifting tides, the nuances in shade suggesting depth and movement, all potential aids in beating the fleet.
On shore, the bustling of humanity can fill your senses. The sounds of the city, normality, regular people going about their daily business, lunching at Doyles in Watson’s Bay… while you’re out on the water, head down, mind on the job at hand.
With Olympic success in the balance it’s too easy to keep that head in the boat, to miss the stunning beaches, the rugged beauty of the Heads, but the Harbor here in Sydney really is something else.
You can almost feel the history, the stories and legacy of a fully working city harbor – for over two hundred years thousands have made a living on the waters of this iconic sheltered inlet, it’s far more than just a place to race.
I began to open my eyes, to breathe it all in, to remember – every bay, every beach, each and every rock even, the buildings, the parks, those complex winds and current, the changing colors of the water. The waves, those smells and noises drifting across from the city. It was a lifetime ago, but I’d known it all so well. It had all meant something.
All those signs back then had helped me “read” this venue. It was so hard to race well here, it was complicated. Sure, I’d always loved it, felt energized by the challenge, but I was also fearful – with so many variables, this harbor could easily trip you up.
Now the memories flooded back – how I’d caught the wake of the Manly ferry on a downwind leg and surfed past eight of my closest competitors. When training we used to stop on the naturalist’s beach by South Head for lunch, just because we could.
Sailing past Bradley’s head, beautiful, sandy and empty now, but back then, bursting with spectators, and as I raced past, within touching distance of the crowd, they’d cheer me on. I’d feel a wave of support from the beaches, “come on the Pom!”
From the start of that week I had the lead. I was relaxed. Never confused or panicked, I trusted in my knowledge of the course. I’d learned to read all those signs and now, I was making the calls, and they were paying off.
While others fell apart, I grew in confidence with each and every day.
I led until the penultimate race, when it all began to fall apart.
I was at 16th place – I had finally choked. I’d always wondered – would I be one of those athletes? Within sight of glory, one hand on the gold medal and it all slips away?
I came alongside my coach, Mark Littlejohn. I was in floods of tears, I’d blown it. I had let him down, I’d let myself down.
He held me, he smiled, and he congratulated me. He told me how proud he was, that still with one race to go, I was on the Olympic podium, I had secured a medal for sure.
The final race would decide the color. “Trust yourself Shirls, you know this crazy Harbor better than all of them.”
And I did. I knew I did.
Back on Comanche, we had work to do. I had to focus on the now, with lots of filming to get through. But motoring back in, the work all done, in the shadow of the Opera House, the “moment” came.
It had been right here, the battle for gold, I had been calm, composed, confident even.
Despite the helicopter noise and spectator boats, it had been oddly silent. I had an eye on my opposition for sure, but to win here my focus couldn’t be them – it was this harbor.
Sydney harbor could bite, you had to understand it, expect the unexpected – and I did. By the last lap, gold was mine to lose. I held my nerve and crossed that finish line one last time.
My life had changed, forever.