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'Sailing for Gold' with John Derbyshire

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The 46th annual Tillotson Lecture was given by Old Boy John Derbyshire OBE, whose involvement with the Royal Yachting Association (RYA) British Sailing Team spans 32 years as a coach, Olympic Manager and Director of Racing. He spent the whole day in School, during which he was interviewed by young sailor Thomas Platt in Year 11 about his experiences, and also met with gifted and talented sports pupils over lunchtime. In the evening, Sixth Form students and other members of the School community gathered in the Great Hall for his Tillotson address.

After a welcome from Headmaster Philip Britton and a brief introduction from School Captain Matthew Schaffel, John took centre stage to reflect on his career, provide insight into Olympic sailing and explain how Great Britain became one of the best sailing nations in the world.

He was first grabbed by this physical and tactical sport while still a pupil at Bolton School between 1963 and 1974. He said that it was the mental side of sailing which really interested him, describing it as “chess on water” with sailors anticipating wind shifts and the movements of other boats in order to be successful.

After leaving Bolton School, he briefly went into teaching. However, in 1984 he had the opportunity to work at the National Sailing Centre as a coach, and from there successfully interviewed to become an Olympic coach. His first Olympic games in 1988 was “the most amazing experience”: he recalled the incredible roar of the crowd during the opening ceremony and several other unforgettable moments from those Games. However, for the 1996 Olympics he was hit with disappointment as he was not selected as the laser coach. He dealt with this by getting involved with Paralympic sailing, and after being chosen as the Paralympic coach they won a gold medal. Looking back on this experience, he advised the audience to “try to find a positive” from disappointment.

Moving on to talk more broadly about his approach to leadership as his career progressed, he said that coaching is in essence “creating the environment for athletes to be the best they can be.” He talked through the values he set for the British sailing teams, which not only included passion, innovation and a commitment to excellence, but also honesty and collaboration between all sailors on the team, despite the fact that they were in competition with each other for Olympic places, and the importance of having fun.

He discussed two more Olympic Games in detail. First was the “interesting and challenging” Sydney Olympics of 2000, which saw the youngest team ever win three gold and two silver medals, smashing their target of three medals in total. This was the fulfilment of a programme of supporting young sailors, which John suggested after his 1996 Olympic disappointment. The success of 2000 transformed the sport: with Lottery funding, sailors could become full-time athletes, and there was a culture shift which meant that sailors didn’t just want to be the best in the country but the best in the world.

John went on to speak about the 2012 home games in London, during which he was the Performance Director. The sailing target was four to six medals, but he also planned to leave behind a legacy for the future of sailing. This included facilities and the establishment of a training base, securing sponsorship for the next Olympic cycle and inspiring the next generation: all of which he managed to achieve. He also briefly talked about some of the VIPs he escorted during the 2012 Olympics, including Princess Anne, David Cameron and the Duchess of Cambridge.

Bringing this section of his talk to a close, John pointed out that between 1980 and 1996 Great Britain won just 5 sailing medals, but since then have secured 24: a massive improvement.

Next he talked about the future of sailing and how the team secures its funding through evidence, which is gathered by establishing “what it takes to win” and creating performance profiles for each sailor, so that every element of their race can be analysed and improved. He also talked about the training for Tokyo 2020, which is now under way, and the facilities that the team is making use of in Japan.

Finally, he said that although he didn’t have a plan when he left school, he gradually built on the opportunities that came along. He reassured those Bolton School pupils in the audience who might be in the same position, saying: “You never know when the thing you want to do with the rest of your life will come along. When it does, grab it, take a chance and have some fun.”

The floor was then opened up to questions. John talked again about his favourite Olympics and favourite host city, which in both cases was Sydney, and described the importance of being respectful of other cultures and transferring knowledge when travelling to the Olympic Games. When asked about the innovations in sailing, he said that there is “a constant stream of good ideas”, but everything must stay within the rules. He also talked about his experience of continuing to sail for a few years after becoming a coach, and the difficulties of not having enough time to do both well. However, he said that since his retirement this year he has got back into the sport again!

Vice-Captain Bilal Asghar led a vote of thanks to bring the evening to a close, after which guests were invited to the Riley Centre for refreshments.

The Tillotson Lecture was established in 1971 at the behest of the late Marcus Tillotson, and since then has become a major public event in the School calendar. The series has attracted eminent speakers, including notable alumni like John, who have delivered thought-provoking lectures to the School community.

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