There are not many kids who dream of being sailors.
But Tom Burton was one. He was that young the first time he was on a boat he can’t even remember it.
“Probably two or three,” Burton recalled when pressed.
The 25-year-old – now the proud owner of an Olympic gold medal after his thrilling success in the men’s laser (dinghy) on Wednesday morning (AEST) – just wanted to follow in the footsteps of his father, Peter.
“My dad’s a keen sailor,” he said in March.
“We were always going to regattas for him, so I was always around sailing.
“The sailing talk just became a part of me … [I] love it.
“The first boat I raced was a wooden sabot [dinghy]. I woke up one Christmas morning to find a fully rigged wooden sabot outside the caravan.”
If it was his dad who ignited his burning passion for sailing, it was Mark Turnbull and Tom King who inspired his Olympic dream.
“I remember going out and watching the 2000 Olympics at Bradley’s Head, eating musk sticks,” he recalled.
“Every time my dad would drive me out, we’d stop at the corner store and get a big bag of musk sticks so I could eat them all day.
“Watching the 470s (Turnbull and King) win gold, ever since that I’ve enjoyed my Laser sailing and wanted to compete at the highest level.”
It was only natural that Burton’s first reaction after his Olympic success was to head ashore to celebrate with friends and family – but jumpy Sailing Australia [SA] officials feared he would get disqualified for breaching protocols when he made a beeline for the beach.
A British competitor was disciplined at the 2012 Games after sailing ashore to greet supporters instead of heading straight to the mandatory drug test.
SA board member Daniel Belcher waved Burton back to sea to avert any possibility of inadvertently surrendering his gold medal.
How he won gold
Burton was guaranteed a podium finish heading into the medal race, but needed to finish five boats ahead of Croatian leader Tonci Stipanovic to snare top spot.
Stipanovic’s strategy was clear as he parked himself behind Burton. He was just going to mimic the Aussie.
“The percentage chance of pulling it [the move] off was pretty slim … it was perfection nearly.”
Australian Olympic gold medalist Tom Burton
But Burton was three steps ahead – and manoeuvred his boat so that Stipanovic made contact with him, incurring a penalty. It was a risk – but one that paid off handsomely.
Burton’s success came after compatriot Tom Slingsby won the same event in London.
And several common threads run through the careers of the two Toms.
Not only are they old training partners, but they both cut their teeth sailing in Gosford and Lake Macquarie.
They also worked under the tutelage of Michael Blackburn, Slingsby’s former coach, who now has two consecutive Olympic Laser champion protégés on his résumé.
Slingsby was the dominant Laser sailor in the world when Burton was first selected for the national team in 2010.
After Slingsby saluted in London he joined America’s Cup syndicate Oracle Team USA, and Burton assumed his mantle as world No.1 – but wins have been hard to come by since peaking in 2014, and he was only considered an outside chance in Rio.
“Coming from when I first started winning Lasers through all the events and then a few years ago winning events and then having not such a great year last year – [it was] a tough selection to even be here,’’ Burton said.
“A few days ago, after the first day, I thought I was nearly out of it after a bad day.
“But the amount of hours I put in, the things that I sacrificed, I missed my sister’s wedding, I didn’t go to the opening ceremony to try and get a good result … it’s all worth it now.’’