Iain Bryden Percy OBE

Doctor of Laws

13 July 2009 - Orator: Mr Bob Reeves

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, Iain Percy

This week, two fairly recent graduates of the University of Bristol are to be awarded honorary degrees. They arrived in Bristol in the same week and both spent their first year in Churchill Hall. One, Josh Lewsey, went on to win a Rugby World Cup winners medal, and the other, Iain Percy, has won gold medals in two Olympic Games.

It is some testimony to this institution that in what is essentially a demanding academic environment, other skills can flourish. It is even greater testimony to those students who achieve in this way, and bring added value to Bristol, that they can  manage their lives so as to maximise their diverse talents.

Iain Percy benefitted in the way that so many sporting champions have done, by being provided with opportunity and encouragement by parents. The great Olympic athletics champion, David Hemery, researched the influences associated with sporting achievement, and the most prevailing factor was parental support.  The Percy family story certainly reinforces such findings.

David, a General Practitioner, and Gillian, a physiotherapist, had three children under the age of five when they decided to take up a sport that all the family could enjoy together. They hit on sailing and bought a ‘Skipper 14’ as a family boat.  The same week that the boat was purchased, Gillian found out that she was pregnant again, so ideas of all sailing in the same boat were ditched, and they joined the Weston Sailing Club in Southampton, where they would all learn to sail and eventually compete with one another.

Such was the success of the children that before the eldest, Katrina, was ten years old, they could all beat their parents. Perhaps the first evidence of Iain’s determination to win was witnessed when he was eight. One day, in a race off Hayling Island, Katrina overtook him, and went on to win. After a while, it was realised that Iain had not finished; indeed they were not sure where his boat was. It was eventually spotted, apparently with no-one in it. Panic ensued, but when the rescue boat arrived, Iain was found lying in the boat, in a rage because his sister had beaten him. Years later, Iain is renowned for his ruthlessly competitive streak and desire to win, but it is a long time since he had such a tantrum!

Iain did get used to winning – he was national Under 10’s champion at the age of seven, and for many years was able to beat opponents many years older than himself; indeed he was National Under 19’s champion at the age of 15.

Throughout his school days, Iain’s sailing continued to improve, as did that of his siblings. All four were either first or second in National Youth Championships and went on to be involved at the highest level in the sport.

Despite the fact that Iain was talented in other sports – he was a member of his school hockey team that won the National Championships – there was never the opportunity to pursue them, sailing taking up ever more of his time.

In his gap year, Iain came fifth in the laser World Championships in Japan, thus doing well enough to receive funding from Sport England as part of the World Class Performance programme. He benefitted from this when he arrived at Bristol to study Economics..

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, an old University friend swears that most of Iain’s Sport England grant was spent on Friday afternoons in the ‘White Bear’, round the corner from the University library, but I am sure this cannot possibly be true. What is certainly true is that Iain spent many hours travelling to and from the south coast to sail at weekends and that he still managed to keep up with his studies.

In 1998, Iain graduated with honours, having managed to maintain his commitment to sailing, involving a considerable amount of time away from Bristol, yet without missing out on having a good student life.

As soon as he left Bristol, Iain was able to go full-time professional and devote his energy to getting into the British team for the 2000 Olympics. He changed to the Finn, this being a new class of boat for the Olympics, and already renowned as a highly technical and difficult craft to master. He responded to the challenge and won the European Championships in 1999, positioning himself well for Sydney.

Sailing in a series of races is a real test of character as well as ability, and despite one or two setbacks, such as one race, in which, as a result of a sudden loss of wind, he went from second to eighth in the last 50 yards, he went into the last race at Sydney knowing that, barring accident, he would be the Olympic champion. Thus it was that the Gold medal was hung round his neck in the impressive setting outside the Sydney Opera House, before it was quickly removed so that he could be thrown into the harbour by his sailing team mates.

Ever one to seek new challenges, Iain decided to change boat again, taking part in the 2004 Athens Olympics in the two-handed Star class. This was not such a great experience, and he came sixth overall, while the British sailing team maintained the wonderful record of 2000. Following the Olympics, he and his partner, Steve Mitchell, bounced back, taking bronze at the World Championships and gold in the European Championships  of 2005.

At this stage, Iain took a break from small boats and had the chance to be steersman of a potential America’s Cup challenger. Because of funding difficulties the project did not advance as much as he hoped, but it did whet his appetite for the future.

So what to do in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, now less than two years away? Difficult decisions had to be made, and though what Iain did was perhaps the toughest decision of his sailing career up to that point, it demonstrated the loyalty and friendship for which he is renowned.

Andrew ‘Bart’ Simpson had sailed with and against Iain since their early childhood; indeed when conditions were not fit to race they did Lego together until conditions improved. ‘Bart’ had gone on to become an International class sailor, but had not been selected for the Olympics. He had been to two Olympic Games, acting as support crew for Iain in Sydney and Ben Ainslie in 2004. Iain determined that he deserved his chance, deciding to change partner in the boat and giving his old friend the opportunity to take part in the Olympic Games. One reason for the change was that Iain, being the meticulous tactician that he is, had ascertained that the sailing in China would most likely be in light winds. ‘Bart’ was used to inland reservoir sailing,, where winds tend to be quieter than off-shore. Iain believed that ‘Bart’ would have some specific experience that might be just enough to make the difference between silver and gold. From the start, they worked well together, and in their first major test won the bronze medal in the ISAF World Championships, going on to qualify comfortably to take part in the Beijing Olympics.

The event itself was dramatic, with Iain and ‘Bart’ improving from day to day in predictably light wind conditions. They went into the last race in second place behind the Swedes, and with several boats in contention. To the surprise of all, they were faced with swirling winds and rain. It was as tense as could be, the lead changing several times, but experience and tactical excellence led to Iain steering the boat home in first place. This guaranteed the gold medal, the fourth won by the British sailors at the Games – a remarkable achievement. Iain was heard to say that as a pair they were improving and gaining momentum all the time, so much so that if it hadn’t been for a hangover he would have been training again the following morning

The taste for the big boats has been rekindled since Beijing, and Iain, ‘Bart’ and triple Gold medallist, Ben Ainslie are now involved in an ambitious plan to make sailing history by challenging for, and winning, the America’s Cup. ‘Team Origin’ will have Iain being exactly what he wants to be, the official ‘tactician’. Ben Ainslie is to be the helmsman and ‘Bart the ‘aft grinder and strategist’, with other great sailors taking on the functions of ‘mainsheet trimmer’, ‘grinder’, ‘mastman’, ‘bowman’ and the other complex roles that make up an America’s Cup crew. The America’s Cup at present is bedecked with legal battles between the current holder and challenger and it may be some years before Team Origin has the chance to compete. In the meantime, Iain and ‘Bart’ are working up their plans for retaining the Olympic ‘Star’ class title in Weymouth in 2012. Things are clearly going well as I have news hot off the press that Iain has flown in today having won the European Championships in Spain over the past weekend.

So much of Percy the sailor- what of Percy the man? The story of his partnership with Andrew Simpson tells us a lot. People refer to his loyalty, ability to make and keep friends and his generosity. His family, while recognising his ruthlessly competitive spirit, acknowledge with affection his sense of fun and warm spirit and away from sailing, his complete disorganisation. He remains ‘one of the boys’. He is fiercely bright and an astute thinker; a natural leader, recognised by all, nonetheless, as a team player.

Here we have a man who could easily have been consumed by his drive for success, single-mindedness and determination, but on his way to being the best in the world at what he does best, he has always kept his feet on the ground, has never lost his love of the family and retained friends from school days and University.

Mr Pro Vice-Chancellor, we have before us a double Olympic champion, one of the finest sportsmen this country has ever produced, a former student of this University and a fine role model for all those aspiring to success on any stage, in any walk of life. I present to you Iain Bryden Percy as eminently worthy of the degree of Doctor of Laws, honoris causa.

Edit this page