By the time the Olympics closing ceremony takes place in Tokyo, Team GB’s sailors will be back home – and some of them will be wearing medals. How many of our sailors will climb on to the podium will be down to the usual factors – fitness, training, conditions at sea – but a few very different ones too.
Since the world went into lockdown in early 2020, international competition has been hard to find. Fortunately for British sailors, most of them were selected in September 2019, with the final selections made by the end of February 2020. Spare a thought for many foreign sailors who were still battling for selection as late as April this year.
Never will an Olympic regatta have been contested with so little international competition in the preceding 18 months. The results of Tokyo 2021 will reveal which nations and athletes have spent their time most wisely. Apart from the first month of lockdown in spring 2020, British sailors have at least been able to sail most of the time in the UK thanks to ‘elite athlete’ exemptions from some of the tightest lockdown restrictions.
The strong home-grown squads have really come into their own, with the younger aspirants for the 2024 Paris Games working closely with the nominees for Tokyo. Lanzarote in the Canary Islands and Vilamoura in Portugal have been important training and racing centres where the Brits have been checking in with their international friends and rivals.
Other nations have had it much worse than the UK; some have had it much better. Time spent at the Olympic venue has been massively curtailed for everyone but the host nation, as RYA Director of Racing Ian Walker explains: ‘Normally you’d want a long training session a couple of months before the Games, then come home to recharge before you fly out again for the final build-up. We’re not sure how it’s going to pan out yet, but the default is that we’re allowed to travel to Japan five days before the event.
‘Just imagine if that’s the case: arrive five days before the event to settle in, find your container, get the boat out, get it through measurement, and you haven’t sailed at the venue for two years, or maybe never at all. Meanwhile the Japanese sailors have been training there every day for the last two years.’
The sailors are under no illusions about how different this will be from the Olympic dream. ‘Eat, sleep, race, repeat’ will be the pattern of the day. No attending the opening or closing ceremonies; no watching other sports or soaking up the atmosphere; no excursions around the country or even a swim in the sea. This is going to be the Lockdown Games.
Every Olympic Games is a test of character, and this year even more so. But after so long worrying whether the Tokyo Games would go ahead at all, Team GB are at least grateful that they’ve been granted their chance to shine in the land of the Rising Sun.
Giles Scott – Finn
Giles went to the 2016 Rio Olympics as the hot favourite for Finn gold and he duly delivered, maintaining Team GB’s unbroken run of Olympic titles in the heavyweight single-hander which began with Iain Percy at Sydney 2000. He’ll go to Tokyo as one of a number of favourites, but not the favourite, for gold, mainly due to the fact that he’s been so busy calling tactics for INEOS Team UK’s recent America’s Cup campaign. ‘I was lucky that my schedule allowed for both events, two opportunities I was not prepared to give up on,’ he says. ‘So my Finn competitors are getting a lot of training in. My challenge has been to squeeze a year’s worth of preparation into four months.’
Hannah Mills and Eilidh McIntyre – 470 W
Hannah was already one of the most decorated British Olympic sailors when she paired with Eilidh in January 2017. With her former crew Saskia Clark she’d established herself as one of the most successful female sailors of all time, with a silver medal from London 2012 and a gold at Rio 2016. When Saskia retired, Hannah continued 470 campaigning with Eilidh, daughter of Mike McIntyre who won Olympic gold in the Star at the 1988 games. The dedicated duo have finished on the podium of the World Championships three times in the past four years, most notably winning the world title in 2019 at Enoshima. Another Olympic title this summer would make Hannah the most successful ever female Olympic sailor and give the McIntyres two generations of gold medallists.
Luke Patience and Chris Grube – 470 M
Luke and Chris’ sailing relationship goes back a long way. The duo won bronze at the 470 class Junior World Championships in 2006. They parted ways in 2009 but remained friends. Luke joined forces with Stuart Bithell and went on to win Olympic silver at London 2012. For Rio 2016 he formed a new partnership with double 470 World Champion Elliot Willis, while Chris switched to the 49er to sail alongside Stuart and then Stevie Morrison. When Elliot was diagnosed with cancer just months before the Games, Luke called on Chris to step in, and despite their lack of build-up managed to finish an incredible fifth. Over the past four years Luke and Chris have displayed flashes of brilliance and good boat speed and are keen to elevate that promising Rio result to a podium finish in Tokyo.
Charlotte Dobson and Saskia Tidey – 49erFX
Charlotte learned to sail when she was seven; by the time she was 12 was knocking on the door of the Optimist class European squad. Specialising in single-handed dinghies, she campaigned the Laser Radial for two Olympic cycles before switching to the 49er FX skiff for Rio 2016. Charlotte and her then-crew, Sophie Ainsworth, were Britain’s number one choice for Rio, where they finished eighth. Saskia was a relative latecomer to sailing, taking it up at 15 after watching the 2008 Olympics. Her dedication and drive saw her progress quickly, and just eight years later she was representing Ireland at Rio 2016 in the 49er FX. She joined the British Sailing Team in early 2017 and teamed up with Charlotte for a crack at Tokyo 2020. The pair have been particularly quick in breezier conditions but have worked on turning themselves into world-class all-rounders. A silver medal at the 2020 World Championships stands them in good stead for Tokyo.
Up until late 2016, Dylan Fletcher and Stuart Bithell were rivals on the water. Stuart won silver in the 470 class alongside Luke Patience at London 2012, but by 2015 he was fighting Dylan for a place at Rio 2016 in the 49er class. It was a battle Dylan and his then crew Alain Sign won; Stuart was forced to accept defeat and watch the Games – at which Dylan finished sixth – from the UK. A few months later Dylan and Stuart joined forces for a Tokyo campaign, and 2017 validated the chemistry of this new partnership with victories at the 49er World and European Championships. They have since turned in regular podium performances at major regattas and will be one of the medal favourites for Tokyo.
John Gimson and Anna Burnet – Nacra 17
No one has worked longer or harder to make it to an Olympic Regatta than John Gimson. After a brief stint in the 470 and Tornado classes, he moved into the Star class. He showed great potential with strong results and was taken under the wing of Iain Percy and Andrew Simpson as their tuning partner for the 2012 Olympic cycle. Burnet began sailing in an Optimist, winning the female national title and being selected for the British Optimist World Championship team in 2006. She went on to win silver and bronze at the 470 Junior World Championships in 2012 and 2013. Gimson and Burnet teamed up in the Nacra 17 catamaran at the end of 2016 and have worked their way to the front of the international fleet. Over the last year they haven’t placed outside the top five at a major international event. Recent highlights include winning the 2020 Nacra 17 World Championships, and silver at the 2019 European Championships, World Cup Final and the Olympic test event.
Emma Wilson – RS:X W
It can be tough following in the footsteps of a two-time Olympian parent, but Emma seems well up to the challenge. From sitting on the front of mum Penny’s board as a toddler, Emma has come a long way, winning the U15 Techno 293 World Championship when she was just 12. Moving to the Olympic class windsurfer, Emma’s success continued with the RS:X Youth Worlds title in 2014, followed by two more in 2016 and 2017. Since then, she’s put herself in the medal potential zone for Tokyo, with a fourth place at the 2020 RS:X Worlds and fourth and fifth places at the two most recent European Championships.
Tom Squires – RS:X M
A young, green-fingered Tom Squires was enjoying life as a budding Oxfordshire gardener before he was bitten by the windsurfing bug at the age of 11. On a family holiday in Cornwall, Squires’ father bought an old windsurfer and let his son have a go. Tom enjoyed it so much that on their return home they immediately signed up to the nearest RYA Windsurfing course –and he’s been obsessed with windsurfing ever since. A fifth place at last year’s European Championships shows that Tom is still improving, and he’s been using the lockdown period wisely to close the gap in fitness and technique with the best in the world.
Ali Young – ILCA 6
Tokyo will be Ali’s third Olympic Games, having been one of the frontrunners in the Laser Radial for the best part of a decade. In 2005 she won bronze at the Youth World Championships, but then left full-time sailing to go to university. She was soon back as a member of the British Sailing Team and qualified for London 2012, finishing fifth. In the run-up to Rio 2016 she made history by becoming the first British woman to win gold at a solo Olympic-class world championship, going on to finish eighth at the Games. With podium finishes at the 2019 World Championship and World Cup, Ali’s strength and fitness should serve her well in the Enoshima swell.
Elliot Hanson – ILCA 7
A family holiday in Anglesey was the catalyst for Elliot to pursue a career in sailing. His first taste of international success was in 2008 when he won the Topper World Championship. Since then, his trophy cabinet has filled with medals from podium finishes in the Laser at major international events. A knee injury and ankle surgery have kept him out of training and competition for a while, but he bounced back with a gold medal at his first international regatta in the Netherlands. Elliot worked hard with the British Laser squad during lockdown in 2020, reaping the rewards with a fifth place in the Worlds and victory at the European Championship in October last year.