The world’s top-ranked windsurfer appears like an image from a holiday brochure: fit, bronzed, slicing through the waves, the golden girl.
But the competitive life of Bryony Shaw has rarely been glamorous and never plain sailing, and if she wins in Rio it will be, above all, a triumph of perseverance.
In 2008 at the Beijing Games, Shaw won the bronze medal and was among the favourites to win in 2012, on her home waters in Weymouth. But she was unable to train properly for the four months leading up to the event after ingesting staphylococcus when competing in Cadiz and developing a chest infection.
She finished fifth but it seemed Shaw’s last chance of Olympic gold had gone, for her event, the RS:X windsurfer, was due to be dropped as an Olympic class. When the decision was reversed, Shaw resumed, winning a silver medal at the 2013 world championships.
But she was unhappy. In her single-minded pursuit of gold at Rio, the balance of her personal and competitive life had become distorted. The joy had disappeared from her windsurfing.
It was the joy she discovered as a nine-year-old when she first stood on a board on holiday at Argeles-sur-Mer on the Mediterranean coast in France and her mother saw her flying away in the direction of Africa. She did not know how to turn and had to be rescued, but she had found her sport.
Just before competing in the 2014 world championships in Santander, Shaw confessed that she had been depressed, had sought psychological help and felt she was through the worst. In the final race, when she was heading for another silver medal, Shaw turned too close to a marker buoy and was stuck on it as her rivals sailed past.
“It was an amateur mistake and I was cursing myself,” she said.
Since that low point, she has been one of the leading female windsurfers in the world, winning two further silver medals in world championships and gold in the 2015 European championships.
“I’m sharpening the saw now,” Shaw said. “I’ve given myself the best chance and I believe the rollercoaster ride I’ve had has given me more self-belief.”
The shifting winds and tides at Rio make it a difficult venue for windsurfing, the most physically demanding of the Olympic sailing classes. “I push myself harder than a lot of the girls and I’m renowned for power and physicality. I’m 33 and you get a lot of muscle damage in windsurfing but I’m as strong as I was four years ago,” she said.
The water off Rio is notoriously polluted.“We are used to seaweed, jelly fish and sea grass but in Rio it’s sewage and rubbish. Something like that could cost someone a gold medal,” Shaw said.