Lockdown was not a new experience for Elliot Hanson. The Laser sailor, selected to go to the Olympics, turned an ankle in a simple accident two years ago and after an operation to re-attach ligament to bone, spent more than a month in a hospital bed, barely able to move.
“The difference was this time I could do some land-based training, whereas before I couldn’t do much with my leg in the air,” says Hanson with a laugh.
“I did set myself a goal of leaving lockdown fitter than when I went in. Like a lot of people I was quite time-rich and the British Sailing Team has a great sports science team behind it. I had done a fitness test just before, so I knew exactly what I needed to be doing.”
Back in March, Hanson had only just been selected for the Tokyo Games, the last one of the Team GB sailors to get the call-up, when the news broke that the Olympics would be postponed for a year.
Not only that, but it was rumoured that the entire trials process, by which each sailor had been selected, might need to be run again.
An agonising few weeks entailed as the sailors waited on a decision. “I’d just been selected and it was a whirlwind of emotions,” Hanson admits. “It was a huge relief when selection was confirmed.
“With the postponement, now I have a real run into the Games, whereas before it would have been a bit crammed in.
“There are not a huge amount of changes you can make in six months, so it was going to be more about peaking and sharpness rather than making advances in technique and ability. So now for me it creates an opportunity to turn those fourths and sixths into podiums.”
Back on the water and grateful for being a single-hander, which means he can train within social distancing guidelines, he also makes the point that UK sailors have an uncommon advantage right now over other nations – in our weather.
“It is now winter in the Southern Hemisphere, so they can sail but it’s not that productive, and in the Scandinavian countries they don’t have great conditions either. So we’re quite lucky. We can get back sailing and we should be able to do more of it.”
In a move that shows the level of comraderie within the British Sailing Team, Hanson is being joined on the water by the man who almost got the Olympic spot himself.
Nick Thompson, from Lymington, was fifth in the Laser at Rio and has been at the top of the global Laser fleet for more than a decade. After the selection announcement, Thompson said he would step back from competitive Laser sailing but is joining Hanson as training partner.
Hanson says: “We first trained together in 2011, in the lead up to Nick’s Perth worlds. He joined our development squad and basically sailed rings around us! I ended up being his race partner in Rio and we’ve spent a lot of time together, sailing and off the water. We are quite similar people.
“The culture has always been you race hard and then leave it out on the water. We spurred each other on in so many ways.
“I will miss having Nick [as a competitor] on the water, that drive he gave me and knowing he always turned up and gave 100%. But with trials over the whole squad is sharing even more information with each other.
“I’m sharing information with them to hopefully help them go forward for Paris [2024 Olympics]. It’s only going to leave British Laser sailing in a better place.”
Hanson grew up in Macclesfield, the youngest of three sporty brothers, something he suggests led to him being “overly competitive”.
Brother Joe excelled in sailing and other sports, while Will played football and rugby at national level.
Young Elliot, who had turned to sailing almost by chance during a family holiday in Anglesey, moved swiftly through the club ranks and won the Topper worlds aged 14 after only three years in the boat.
After transitioning to the Laser his success continued, broadening his experience meanwhile as tactician on bigger boats including in Etchells and the Fast40+ class in the Solent.
In 2017, Hanson joined the Land Rover BAR Academy crew in the Youth America’s Cup in Bermuda, bringing home a spectacular but under-reported win. “I was going from doing five knots in the Laser to doing 30 knots. I did a wing trim/ tactician role which I enjoyed.
“You’re able to spend more time processing information to make decisions, whereas singlehanded you’re so often focussed solely on that next wave on your bow and steering the boat that you struggle to take in all the things going on around you.
“At that point I had started to win senior medals individually, but to win as part of a team was a lot more emotional, quite an interesting experience for me having raced singlehanded almost all my life.”
The Laser, he adds, is the perfect apprenticeship for bigger boat sailing: “A lot of people are quick to write off slow singlehanded boats, but you don’t have to look far to see people how people like Ben Ainslie, Giles Scott, Paul Goodison and others have adapted.
“You have to adapt to different boat speeds and styles of racing but a great tactician is a great tactician on any boat.”
He won’t be drawn into a debate on the future of the Laser as an Olympic class, but says: “I think World Sailing are being pressured by the IOC to make the sport more appealing, which is sparking changes in formats and classes.
“I don’t necessarily see those changes as things that will tick the IOC’s boxes. The Laser is accessible and the reason it’s been there so long is because it’s such a great boat.”
First published on Yachts and Yachting
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