FOR Nathan Outteridge, winning an Olympic gold medal was not the greatest moment of his life.
Nor was letting one slip through his fingers the worst.
In the grand scheme of things, Outteridge learned long ago that sailing is not the be-all and end-all.
It is his passion, and his victory with crewmate Iain Jensen in the 49ers skiff category at the London Olympics on Wednesday was a special moment for two Wangi Wangi yachtsmen who grew up on the shores of Lake Macquarie and learnt their craft as toddlers.
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Likewise, when Outteridge and his then partner, Ben Austin, inexplicably capsized just a few hundred metres from victory at Beijing four years ago he was gutted and spent countless hours agonising over the most costly mistake of his career.
But deep down inside, Outteridge knew he had been through worse and survived to tell the tale. Literally.
In January 2005, towing a trailer-load of boats to Melbourne for a race, the 19-year-old fell asleep behind the wheel and ploughed into a tree near Albury.
He was airlifted to Sydney’s Prince of Wales Hospital with a broken back. There was concern he would never walk again, let alone sail.
After a nine-hour operation to fuse vertebrae, he spent three weeks flat on his back, motionless. A plastic brace immobilised him from hip to shoulder for three months.
Eventually, he took the first tentative steps. Nine months later he was back on the water, on a skiff he named ‘‘Spineless’’. Little wonder the 26-year-old takes a philosophical view of his sporting highs and lows.
As he said on Wednesday, after emerging triumphant from the water at Weymouth, he was grateful not to be confined to a wheelchair for life.
‘‘After that,’’ he said, ‘‘anything else is a bonus.’’
Such an attitude explains why Outteridge was so well equipped to deal with the disappointment in Qingdao, a setback that may have broken a lesser man.
Instead he sucked it up and vowed never to allow himself to be in such a position again.
It was not enough to merely be the best. He had to be flawless.
‘‘Sometimes you have to reflect on the bad things in your life as well as the good things,’’ he said.
‘‘What happened [in Beijing] has helped me get to where I am today.’’
Four years on, Outteridge and Jensen arrived in England as unbackable gold medal favourites.
They had won three consecutive world titles. They knew they were faster than anybody else, and their opposition knew it, too.
But until such time as victory was confirmed, Outteridge understood he could take nothing for granted. But there were no nerves. Perfectionists like Outteridge rarely make the same mistake twice.
This time he was able to sleep soundly on the eve of the 16th and final race.
Two days previously, he and Jensen racked up an unassailable lead.
Barring a sanction for ‘‘not making an effort’’ in the last event, which would have resulted in them being relegated to 10th overall, their gold medals were in the post.
There was no sense of anti-climax for Outteridge.
Having waited four years to make amends, he was happy to collect the ultimate prize whenever, wherever and however it was delivered.
Not just because he and Jensen deserved it, but because it represented closure.
Outteridge’s only concerns heading into the final race were to put on a fitting show for his many supporters – lining the shores at Weymouth and back home in the Wangi RSL – and not to impede those chasing the bronze medal, the silver having already been secured by New Zealand.
He and Jensen finished fourth, then were greeted by jubilant teammates and staff members, who hoisted them high and presented them with lit flares.
‘‘Words just can’t describe how it feels when you realise it’s all going to happen,’’ Jensen said.
‘‘It’s been two days since we knew we were going to win, and I don’t think it’s really sunk in.’’
Outteridge said it was ‘‘really cool to do a race where it didn’t matter where we finished, so we could just enjoy it’’.
It is hard to imagine even the rivals he has beaten so routinely would begrudge him that luxury.