Ask Hannah Mills about the unthinkable – that the Olympics might be cancelled – and she replies evenly: “Obviously that thought crosses your mind, but the only thing you can do is to push it aside and just say ‘it’s irrelevant’. You can’t stop training, you can’t stop being motivated.
“If the Games don’t happen it’ll be a disaster. Of course there are doubts, but you push them aside.”
A gold in Tokyo this summer would make Hannah Mills, aged 32, the most successful female Olympic sailor of all time, having won silver in London and gold in Rio with Saskia Clark.
The image of her and Clark embracing on the podium in Rio was one of the most moving of the Games and the culmination of a great sailing partnership.
Afterwards Clark retired from Olympic competition and Mills considered it, but she’d seen something in Rio that she couldn’t forget. “Every beach, marina and coastal area we visited during that four-year period was affected and damaged beyond belief, and so much of it was single-use plastic.
“Post-Rio, once we’d won and I was thinking about whether to compete again, I was so moved by what I had seen that I felt maybe the best thing I could do was go and compete at Tokyo and be able to talk about this issue on my journey, raising awareness and trying to change people’s attitudes.”
She got the backing of the International Olympic Committee and the Big Plastic Pledge was launched, encouraging people to make three daily promises to reduce single-use plastics in their lives.
In an ocean of well-meaning environmental campaigns, Mills’ simple message seemed to resonate and she found a receptive audience in the sailing world and outside it, particularly at the RYA Dinghy Show in March 2020, where she talked to a packed auditorium.
“It was a really positive vibe and I had so many people come up after the talk saying they had made the pledge, especially lots of kids, which was really nice, hassling their parents to go and make their own pledge.”
Now she wants to expand the campaign further to encompass sustainability in general and also to include other sports.
“I want to create something that involves more athletes at the helm, so it becomes something about sport in general. The pledge will still stand, because it’s a really powerful thing for individuals to latch onto, but it’s definitely going to evolve in terms of sustainability and sport.”
Mills may have found a cause and a reason – more altruistic than those that most athletes might offer – to do another Olympic campaign, but did she still have the ambition and the drive on the water?
The younger Mills had lived and breathed every moment of the road to Olympic glory, but post-Rio she took a moment to ponder the path ahead – by going skiff sailing.
“I wanted to keep learning. Jumping into a new class, your learning curve is so steep, it is really motivating.
“The 49erFX just looked like good fun. I always knew I’d be too small to sail the boat at Tokyo and it was more something to keep me learning until the 470 panned out how I hoped it would.”
This unusually relaxed time on the water was reinvigorating and Mills realised she wanted to defend her Olympic gold, but with Saskia Clark retired, she had no crew, and who would dare to fill those mighty shoes?
The answer came in the form of Eilidh McIntyre, who with helm Sophie Weguelin had been Mills and Clark’s rival for the Rio spot in 2016.
McIntyre told Sailing Today with Yachts & Yachting of her terror at phoning the Olympic champion and asking to be her new crew – to which Mills cooly replied: “I was expecting your call.”
Mills laughs: “I was! I thought it was really brave of her to call. I was really hoping she would and obviously I would have called her eventually.
“We’d been rivals for that spot in Rio and Sophie and Eilidh gave us a real battle. I was really excited that she had called but we just had to figure out the right way forward because I definitely wasn’t ready to go full-time sailing just yet.”
“She is amazing,” Mills says of McIntyre. “She has so much energy, so much motivation and passion for the Olympics.
“She definitely reminds me of me in the London cycle, where everything is about the Games. You live, breath, eat, sleep, everything it. It’s so cool to see and it definitely motivates me and that brings us together.
“She is also just a great teammate, so fun to be around, and she brings a lot out on the water, always trying to problem-solve and figure out how we could be better.”
The partnership was sealed when they took gold at their first event, the 2017 World Cup Series final in Spain, and then followed it up with silver at the 470 world championships.
They were 2019 world champions and were three days out from starting a defence of their title when the Olympics was postponed.
“We knew it was coming and we knew it couldn’t possibly go ahead,” says Mills, “but when it was announced and I read it, it still hit pretty hard. I had a moment of bursting into tears!
“When you’re training so hard for something and every single day is dedicated to that final push and that final push is so all-consuming… to have have that taken away and moved on a year, you think: ‘I’ve got to put myself through this again in a year’s time’.
“It took a couple of weeks of ups and downs, trying to reframe it in my mind, and most of the time now I see it as positive.”
Post-lockdown, she and McIntyre are back on the water training full-time, but international competition, such a key part of any normal Olympic build-up, is lacking. “At the moment we have six [elite] 470 crews in the UK, all training,” says Mills.
“That’s been a really good training group for us at home. Now we’re starting to look at trips abroad to find some foreign competitors, but obviously that is challenging.
“It’s difficult to know what to do, whether to chase some competition or just say for now we’re going to stay in the UK and not stress. No one knows what the future holds.
“If we get to the spring next year and still haven’t had any competition, then we’re looking at the Olympic Games a couple of months away, that’s starting to get a bit stressful that we won’t have raced for over a year.”
Their last major regatta was the Olympic Test Event a year ago, where their French rivals Camille Lecointre and Aloise Retornaz snatched gold by a point. Now the French and other rival crews on the Continent are getting together to form training groups.
First published on Yachts and Yachting
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