It is the year 2000 and Eilidh McIntyre is six years old. She’s sitting on the sofa at home in Hayling Island, watching a video of her father Mike winning a sailing gold medal at the Olympics.
“I just thought: ‘I want to go and do that’,” says Eilidh today, recalling the moment she became inspired to pursue the Olympic dream.
“One of the really beautiful things about having an Olympic gold medal hanging in the house,” she continues, “is that anything seems possible. Why not? My dad did it, so why couldn’t I? That’s been a big aspect of who I am.”
McIntyre junior, now aged 26, doesn’t yet have the medal that dad Mike won in the Star in 1988 in Seoul, with Bryn Vaile, but she is on her way to continuing the family tradition, having been selected as crew in the 470 dinghy with helm Hannah Mills for Tokyo this summer.
It’s a dream that’s been foremost in her mind since her very first days afloat, taking to the water at her local Hayling Island Sailing Club as a youngster.
“I was a bit of a nightmare to be honest,” she says. “All I cared about was winning. If I wasn’t winning then I wasn’t going to the Olympics! But I loved it.
“It was a most beautiful place to grow up and a wonderful environment to learn to sail in. I just lived on the beach, going sailing whenever I could.”
She started in Optimists and branched out into the RS Feva, becoming national champion aged 15, at which point she was already 6ft tall and well-suited to the crewing role in the powerful 470.
It was her chance to sail an Olympic class. “I leaped at it,” she says.
As through all of McIntyre’s sailing career, however, it was her father Mike who urged caution.
She says: “He is 100 per cent my hero and my inspiration and I wouldn’t be here without my dad, but he has always been there, checking: ‘Are you sure you want to do this? Are you sure you’re doing this for you?’
“He and my mum have always fully supported me but the important thing is they never pushed me. They know how hard the journey can be.”
She adds: “My mum went through it all with my dad and now she says: ‘I can’t believe you are putting me through this again!’”
Her transition to the 470 in 2009 came too soon to stand a chance of selection for London 2012, but by the time Rio came around in 2016, McIntyre and helm Sophie Weguelin were contenders.
When they missed out on selection, McIntyre knew something had to change.
“Together we didn’t have what it took,” she says of her otherwise successful partnership with Weguelin.
“After Rio, there was not an option to not go to the next Games. I had to make it happen – this Games was my Games.”
The realisation prompted her into making a phone call that says a lot about McIntyre’s desire and self-belief.
“I knew the one person I needed to call was Hannah. I phoned her up and I was ridiculously nervous. It is a very frightening thing, calling up the Olympic champion and asking if they’d like to sail with you.”
Mills, however, having just split from crew Saskia Clark, already had similar thoughts and replied in a distinctly James Bond manner: “I’ve been waiting for your call.”
The two spent a few days together, sailing a 49erFX, “having a laugh”, before pushing the button on a campaign to win gold in Enoshima Bay, something which would make Mills the world’s most successful female Olympic sailor.
With the Mills/Clark partnership having produced two Olympic medals – silver at London and gold at Rio – McIntyre might have been feeling the pressure, but the new pair won the 2017 World Cup Series final in Spain, their first outing together, then followed with a silver at the 470 Worlds.
They were 2019 world champions and were three days out from starting a defence of their title when, in March 2020, the Olympics was postponed.
“I am so grateful that we won that worlds,” she says. “It’s nice to be able to reconcile it with this moment before the Games and be able to say: ‘Whatever happens, I’ve achieved something amazing’.
“The million dollar question [after the postponement] was how we make the most of the extra time. One thing I’ve learned in sailing is that every knockback is an opportunity. It’s about turning it to your advantage.
“The postponement meant extra time to work on stuff. You will never be where you want to be at the Games. We are always at the top of the fleet, but we’re not winning every regatta by 20 points. Now we have to push even harder.”
First published on Yachts and Yachting
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