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Olympic Profile: ‘Disco Tom’ Ashley

from: Sunday Star Times | Sunday, 06 July 2008
TOM ASHLEY is quick to play down suggestions he’s a latter-day John Travolta. And it’s hard to see how a quiet, tall, skinny white guy who follows guidelines laid down by an ancient Indian medical practice could earn the nickname “Disco Tom”.
But there it is, on that font of all cyber wisdom Wikipedia: “Thomas (`Disco Tom’) John Mitchell Ashley (born 11 February 1984 in Auckland) is a sailor from New Zealand, who won the gold medal at the 2008 RS:X World Championships. He is the 2008 world champion.”

Once you’ve got over the fact his middle names are John Mitchell, you read: “Aside from his on-water achievements, Thomas’s performances at international windsurfing event after-parties have earned him the nickname `Disco Tom’. If anything, the relative infrequency of these parties has added to the myth of his electrifying dance floor routines. This myth, in turn, has buttressed his reputation as the most desired man in international windsurfing.”

I raise this with Ashley and he’s quick to laugh before attesting to be one of the few people in the western world who hasn’t Googled his own name …

“But I have seen it,” Ashley confesses, “someone drew my attention to it at the worlds and I know exactly who is responsible, it’s my best mate from Australia. I didn’t think it was a big enough deal to get it deleted; it’s a bit tongue and cheek.”

For any more evidence Ashley isn’t really a big party person, here are the reasons he won’t be marching in the Olympic Games opening ceremony: “I’m not really into that kind of thing. I don’t really like big occasions and big crowds so I’ll be more than happy not to go.”

Ashley really is your typically reticent and self-effacing Kiwi and for that reason he has flown under the radar when talk turns to possible Olympic gold medal candidates.

Ashley has been almost untouchable at the top of men’s windsurfing for the past two years, winning six of the 10 regattas he has entered since August 2006, including prestigious events in France and Spain, as well as the pre-Olympic regatta at Qingdao and the 2008 world championship in Takapuna.

He’s honing his Olympic preparation at Valencia, working out of the base used by America’s Cup syndicates last year.

“The conditions in Valencia are very similar to what we expect in China, with lighter breezes, and I want to make sure the training is as specific as possible,” Ashley explains.

“And there’s also a very good infrastructure here with the Kiwi sailors involved in the America’s Cup.”

It’s widely expected the Olympic regatta will be contested in light breezes, which will suit some sailors more than others. Ashley admits he prefers more robust conditions, but has been training for what he’s likely to get without sacrificing versatility.

“I’ve been training most of the time for the past two years in light winds; it’s been a big focus to get strong and competitive in these conditions, but you still need to be able sail in all conditions and I think that will be my strength,” Ashley says, pointing to his victory in last year’s pre-Olympic regatta when he was slightly off the pace in light air but won the event when the breeze picked up in the medal race and he swooped past rivals who couldn’t handle it rough.

“I’m quite happy to sail the whole regatta in light wind if need be, but if we do get one or more days of breeze, other guys who might be at my level in light winds might suffer in the breeze.

“It’s impossible to say how it will go, but if things go the way we expect I’m pretty happy with the way things have been going.”

Among the Kiwis in Valencia who have been helping Ashley is David Abercrombie, the Kiwi physiotherapist with Russell Coutts’ Oracle syndicate.

Abercrombie has been busy lately as Ashley has just come off a heavy block of training which involved up to five hours of cycling per day, plus another two or three hours on the water as he builds leg strength and endurance.

“The cycling’s for aerobic fitness which is crucial, and there’s a leg strength component in windsurfing as well, so a lot of the work I do in the gym is also leg-based.”

What about all that arm-work; holding up the rig and pumping the sail? “The pumping is a whole body movement so it’s important it starts with the legs. The arms are actually last in line and therefore the least important.”

Ashley has had a relatively rapid rise to the top of windsurfing but he’s been a sailor most of his life. The son of a sailmaker, he grew up around boats and was often in a dinghy during his childhood.

For his 15th birthday, his parents surprised him with a windsurfer they bought off an international sailor who was in New Zealand training for the Sydney Olympics and couldn’t afford to take the board with him.

“It’s never ideal to travel with windsurfers so people often get rid of boards rather than travelling with them,” Ashley explains. “There was a group of European sailors training in Auckland before the Sydney Olympics and they were all selling their boards before they went overseas, so my mum and dad got me a board for my birthday and that’s what got me into it.”

Another thing Ashley got from his parents was an interest in Ayurvedic medicine. The ancient Indian science is diet-based and Ashley, while not a strict devotee, likes the emphasis on controlling your health by what you eat.

“It’s not actually that uncommon, there’s nothing of a cult about it or anything,” he explains. “It’s not scientific in western terms, but they consider it a science and it has been around a couple of thousand years. The benefits are quite well-documented and I find it works.

“It makes sense to me and there’s nothing too crazy; I eat food I’d normally eat anyway although there are a couple of things I stay away from. For me, the main thing is on food preparation; allegedly for my constitution I should cook food before I eat it, I shouldn’t eat raw food.”

Ayurvedic practice is to use herbs and supplements but Ashley avoids them because he doesn’t want to inadvertently consume a banned substance.

ASHLEY SPEAKS fluent Portuguese (his fiancee Mariana is Brazilian) and has been improving his Spanish, although he hasn’t reached a level where he was able to talk his way out of a 200 fine for talking on his mobile phone while driving.

“I do OK with Spanish but with the cops sometimes it isn’t even worth trying, you just make it worse.”

As we speak he quickly has to drop the phone when he spies another police car. “I don’t want another fine,” he says once he’s clear, before again ditching the phone.

More cops? “There’s about four of them in a 50m radius,” he says, “I think they’re all after me.”

Let’s hope it’s the same story with his Olympic rivals.