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Jan 13, 2020

Emma Wilson is gone with the wind

Tony James speaks to young windsurfing sensation Emma Wilson

“My mum is just my mum”, is how Emma Wilson puts it but when your mum is a former three times world champion in the same sport and a two time Olympian, it must be hard not to feel the pressure.

Apparently not. At only 20, Emma Wilson is the youngest member of Britain’s 12-member windsurfing team for next year’s Tokyo Olympics, a multiple youth world champion and European medalist, and is quick to assure us that following her mother, Penny, to the top of her sport is an advantage rather than a problem.

“I really don’t feel any pressure,” Emma says. “It’s really cool to have her knowledge and advice. It’s nice to have someone who understands it.”

In fact, it’s Penny who would seem to feel the pressure. “She comes with me to competitions to support me and help out,” her daughter says. “She has such a lot of experience and absolutely understands what I’m going through. But I don’t think she has ever watched me race. She usually goes for a run instead!”

But the motherly concern is there all right. Penny has said that she instantly knows if Emma is over training or getting stressed. When that happens, mum tries to make things a little easier, and sees to it that her daughter has some fun.

Few parents can know exactly what their offspring is experiencing in the world of topflight competition, but Penny, who windsurfed for Great Britain at the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992 and Atlanta in 1996, certainly does.

Penny gained a recognition that today’s windsurfers can only dream of with appearances on the BBC’s A Question of Sport, and even has a road named after her. She stopped being a full-time windsurfer in 1996 to start a family, but the sport is still a major part of her life, although she is careful not to get involved in Emma’s coaching. After all, former world champion Barrie Edgington takes care of that.

The family moved to Christchurch, near Bournemouth, from the Midlands when Emma and her brother Dan were little and the windsurfing bug bit them all. Now Dan, 18 months older than Emma, is in the British team, too. They were never pushed. They were out on the water when they were toddlers, often riding on the front of their mum’s windsurfer, but they were encouraged to try other sports and Emma played hockey at regional level.

“I was always into sport at school,” Emma says. “I tried to do as many as I possibly could. When I saw Kelly Holmes on TV I just thought: ‘I want to be like her.’” But the call of the sea was too strong. Emma was out on her own windsurfer at seven and racing at 12.

Winning became a habit. She won the first of three under-19 world championships at the age of 15 and has enjoyed a meteoric rise to the top of the RS:X sailing class. Being picked for the Tokyo GB team seemed inevitable to everyone but Emma. “It’s a dream I’ve had since I was a kid but, to be honest, I didn’t expect to be selected while I was so young. It still feels a bit surreal.”

Already the pressure is on the willowy 20-year-old with training five or six days a week on both land and water, depending on the conditions, but the English channel in winter is no place for elite windsurfing and Emma is off to a training camp in Portugal.

“Everyone gets nervous and it’s scary when it’s really windy - like 30 knots,” she says. “But I’m learning to have fun, and the more fun I have the better I seem to do. There are so many cool people and great sailors around and I’m just enjoying being in this world.”

Barrie Edgington is from the same era as Emma’s mum. “He just wants me to keep enjoying it, having fun and learning from every race. So that’s my approach nowadays.” She was in Japan for two months this summer training and getting used to the conditions she’ll encounter in the Olympics and came fourth in a test event.

“Normally, finishing fourth in an Olympic regatta would be the worst place to be but I was probably the happiest fourthplaced person around,” Emma says. “It was just great to be competing at that level.”

Emma’s certain that her experience in Japan will help her next year. “I think that if I learned anything it’s that I’ve got to be prepared for absolutely everything - any wind or wave conditions. It’s an awesome place to windsurf and I’m really looking forward to some hard - and fun - winter training.”

Windsurfing isn’t for wimps. It’s one of the most demanding watersports. You need to be young and fit - and of course Emma is. Once it was a macho male thing but the success a new generation of female stars like Emma, and her friend and inspiration Bryony Shaw, is bringing an increasing number of girls into the sport.

Women’s windsurfers may be slightly smaller and with a reduced sail area but it’s still extremely physical, requires significant cardiovascular fitness and a full range of body movements from head to toe and as the wind changes, so do the demands on the body.

In fact, many of the actions in windsurfing are the exact opposite of the things we do in everyday life - surfers are in a half-squat position for much of the time, on an unstable platform which means balance is never 50-50 on each leg.

It was in the 1980s that surfers first hit on a way to propel their boards without waves and kit was virtually prehistoric compared with today’s. Emma’s RS:X class was first developed for the 2008 Olympics and features a hightechnology rig, carbon boom and mast and a centreboard. The kit’s light and tough and built to cope with any conditions slightly less than diabolical.

It’s also easy to transport and can be taken on planes as excess baggage, but equipment needed for the elite circuit can still set you back around £5,000, plus travelling and living expenses, and Emma admits she was struggling to make ends meet as a professional competitor.

“Windsurfing is really expensive when you get to this level,” she says. “A lot of countries get their federations to finance them but in the UK you have to find all your own stuff. I did the rounds of possible sponsors and crowdfunders and things weren’t going too well. Then, thank goodness, I found 24Haymarket.”

A leading private investment platform, 24Haymarket took Emma under its wing for which she is truly thankful. She says: “I am very appreciative of their support as I prepare for the most important ten months of my career to date.

“Being selected for Team GB is a dream come true and without the backing of 24Haymarket, realising that dream would be so much harder. I am very excited to see what we can achieve.”

Paul Tselentis, 24Haymarket CEO, is delighted to help. “Emma is the world’s leading young female windsurfer among a generation of up and coming talent that is disrupting the established competition,” is how he puts it. “We are proud to recognise, invest in and support her talent and potential.”

With the support of her backers and her family, Emma’s hopes for Tokyo are realistic but high. “My family have always been part of my journey and of course my mum has seen it all before. Is she proud of me? I think she is - but she’d probably be even happier if I tidied my room!”

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