From hell in a wheelchair to golden glory for sailor

Winners … Iain Jensen and Nathan Outteridge, right.FOR Nathan Outteridge, winning an Olympic gold medal was not the greatest moment of his life. Nor was letting one slip through his fingers the worst.

In the grand scheme of things, Outteridge learnt long ago that sailing was not the be-all and end-all.

It is his passion – and his victory with Iain Jensen in the 49ers skiff category at the Olympics on Wednesday was a special moment for the two Wangi Wangi yachtsmen who grew up on the shores of Lake Macquarie and learnt their craft as toddlers.

Likewise, when Outteridge and his then partner, Ben Austin, inexplicably capsized a few hundred metres from victory at Beijing four years ago, he was gutted and spent countless hours agonising over the most costly mistake of his career. But Outteridge knew he had been through worse.

In January 2005, while towing a trailer-load of boats to Melbourne for a race, the 19-year-old drifted off to sleep behind the wheel and ploughed into a tree near Albury. He was flown to Prince of Wales Hospital in Sydney with a broken back. There was concern he would never walk again, let alone sail.

After a nine-hour operation to fuse vertebrae, he spent three weeks on his back, motionless. For three months a plastic body brace immobilised him from hip to shoulder. Eventually, he took the first tentative steps of his recovery.

Nine months later he was back on the water, on a skiff he named Spineless. Little wonder the 26-year-old takes a philosophical view of his sporting highs and lows.

As he said on Wednesday after emerging triumphant from the water at Weymouth, he was grateful not to be confined to a wheelchair for life. ”After that,” he said, ”anything else is a bonus.”

Such an attitude explains why Outteridge was so well equipped to deal with the disappointment in Qingdao. Instead he vowed never to allow himself to be in such a position again. It was not enough to merely be the best. He had to be flawless.

”Sometimes you have to reflect on the bad things in your life as well as the good things,” he said. ”What happened [in Beijing] has helped me get to where I am today.”

Four years on, Outteridge and Jensen arrived in England as unbackable gold-medal favourites. They had won three consecutive world titles. They knew they were faster than anybody else, and their opposition knew it, too.

But Outteridge understood he could take nothing for granted. But there were no nerves. This time he slept soundly on the eve of the 16th and final race.

Two days before, he and Jensen racked up an unassailable lead. Barring a sanction for ”not making an effort”, which would have resulted in their being relegated to 10th overall, their gold medals were in the post.

There was no sense of anti-climax for Outteridge. Having waited four years to make amends, he was happy to collect the ultimate prize whenever and however it was delivered. Not only because he and Jensen deserved it, but because it represented closure.

”I’ve spent the last four years trying to move on … we can stand here and say we did everything possible to win, and the results prove it,” he said.

Outteridge’s only concerns before the final race were to put on a fitting show – for his many supporters on the shores at Weymouth and at home in the Wangi RSL – and not to impede those chasing the bronze medal, the silver having already been secured by New Zealand. He and Jensen finished fourth and were greeted by jubilant teammates and staff members, who hoisted them high and presented them with lit flares.

”Words just can’t describe how it feels when you realise it’s all going to happen,” Jensen said. ”It’s been two days since we knew we were going to win, and I don’t think it’s really sunk in.”

Outteridge said it was ”really cool to do a race where it didn’t matter where we finished, so we could just enjoy it”. It is hard to imagine that even the rivals he has beaten so routinely would begrudge him that luxury.

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