Great Britain is the most successful nation in Olympic sailing history, with more gold medals won than any other nation. With that in mind, this year’s Team GB sailors have a lot to live up to.
Sportsister’s Jessica Whittington caught up with Hannah Mills to hear how the 24-year-old helm is more than ready to play her part.
Hannah will make her Olympic debut in Weymouth and Portland later this year, when she’ll join crew Saskia Clark in a bid to win 470 class gold.
Given the duo’s results since partnering up just 15 months ago, it’s a realistic aim, but one the girls know won’t come easy.
“It’s sailing and anything can happen with sailing,” Hannah tells me, dismissing the home advantage. “It’s a very unpredictable sport.
“It definitely helps having sailed in a venue more and more but I think the foreigners know that and they’re going to be over here almost as much as we are.
“So being at home is an advantage but I don’t think we should fall back on it – it’s going to be pretty even by the time the Games come round.”
Their silver-medal winning performance at the Olympic test event last August is certainly an encouraging omen and proved the duo’s ability to make the grade at the Olympic venue.
They were eventually pipped to gold by the Japanese pair of Ai Kondo and Wakako Tabata and although disappointed at the time, Hannah recognises the benefits of such an experience.
“We both [herself and Saskia] had said before the regatta how important it is to have medals on home water before going to the Games.
“Missing out on gold was mainly down to the fact that we’d not sailed the boat together for long and our boat handling wasn’t good enough in the amount of wind that we had that day.
“Hopefully that’s something that’ll be rectified this time round and those little mistakes which creep in when you haven’t been sailing together long won’t be there.
“The fact that we got a silver medal at the test event as well as a silver medal at the Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta in Weymouth last year was a big boost going into this year.
“It really proved that we can perform on these waters under pressure.”
Although her Olympic debut, Hannah will not only have the experience of a couple of home water medals under her belt, but also the benefit of having Beijing 2008 470 representative Saskia by her side when she takes to the Weymouth waters in August.
“As soon as I started sailing with Sass [Saskia] I was bombarding her with questions about Beijing – it’s been absolutely invaluable having her in the boat,” she says.
“She’s been giving me tips and the main one is to just try and enjoy it. It is going to be an exceptionally stressful, nerve-wracking and emotional time, but that’s fine – as long as we accept that and know that’s what it is going to be like then it’s fine.
“It’s probably going to be the coolest thing I’ll ever do in my life so I’ve got to just try and make sure I get some enjoyment out of it!”
Despite having only joined forces with the 32-year-old in February 2011, the pair quickly went on to experience success, winning silver at the Hyeres World Cup event last April in what was only their second regatta together.
“Our trials essentially started three and a half months after partnering,” she says. “When we first teamed up we obviously knew each other, but not very well – we’d never sailed together.
“It was kind of a do or die – we just had to get on with it.”
Hannah filled the void left by the retirement of double Olympic sailing champion Sarah Ayton (who was one of the ‘Three Blondes in a Boat’ in the now defunct Yingling class) and admits it was a little daunting knowing who she was replacing.
“I was a bit apprehensive,” she says, “especially in the first few days of sailing with Sass.
“I was worried that she might be like ‘oh my God, she’s rubbish!’ But luckily that wasn’t the case.” She needn’t have worried. Just taking a look at Hannah’s sailing career prior to the partnership proves she’s got the talent and experience to make it at the top.
She rose through the ranks as one of Britain’s most promising juniors and remains the only GB sailor to have won the Optimist Girls’ World Championship, which she did in 2003, having been the first girl to win the British national title a year earlier.
She went on to win 470 Junior World and European crowns with Katrina Hughes before joining Saskia – and now they’re very much one of the crews to beat at London 2012.
But does she feel the pressure? What pressure?
“It’s a funny one, success,” she says. “You can take it one of two ways. You can either look at it negatively in that yes there is now more pressure because we’re an established team but then equally the very fact that we are an established team means people do maybe fear us a little.
“You can thrive off that energy so it totally depends how you look at it. We definitely look at it as a positive.”
Hannah and Saskia were among the first athletes to officially join the ranks of Team GB for the London 2012 Olympic Games when the sailing squad was announced at the historic Royal Naval College in Greenwich last September.
Prior to that, they’d already had their spots confirmed by phone, Hannah tells me.
So what did she and Saskia do when they’d spoken to RYA Olympic Manager Stephen ‘Sparky’ Park and found out they were in? Watched a Harry Potter film, of course.
“I woke up really early on the day we knew we were getting the phone call and went to Sass’s house. We sat there just chatting rubbish, then my phone rang and it was Sparky who told us we’d been selected.
“We went mental for about half an hour, jumping around the house and ringing our parents. That afternoon we tried to calm ourselves down so we watched Harry Potter and then went out for a bit of a celebration that evening. It was an emotional day!”
Their selection, made with just under a year to go before they take to the water on August 2, has given them valuable time to prepare. Upcoming events such as the 470 World Championships in Barcelona later this month and the 2012 Sail for Gold Regatta in June should provide the perfect warm up.
“It was a big thing for us to be selected early,” Hannah agrees. “As we’re such a new team we had quite a lot of stuff that we had to focus on that wasn’t just performance related or wouldn’t impact immediately on performance.
“A lot of our equipment was kind of just thrown together at the beginning – what we thought might be the best mast, the best sails for us. We hadn’t really had time to properly look into that in any more detail.
“It just takes the pressure off for those few months where you can sort out the smaller things that get overlooked.
“Now, three and a half months out, we feel reenergised. We’re excited again and totally ready to nail the next few months to make sure we’re fully up for August.”
She’s hoping the rest of the nation will be fully up for it too, with a home Games the perfect opportunity to put sailing in the spotlight.
“One of the key reasons why everyone wanted the Games in London was to really help sport around the UK take off,” Hannah says.
“Hopefully success in sailing at the Olympics will put the sport more on the map. It really is more accessible than people think to go sailing – a lot of people have the idea that it’s a middle or upper class sport and that you have to have loads of money to do it but that’s not the case.”
And if Hannah, a girl who’s afraid of open water and has no family history of sailing can take to the seas, she’s confident others can too. “It’s true, I don’t really like the sea,” she laughs.
“I’m really scared of all the animals out there and so it’s a very big incentive for us not to capsize!”
Jessica Whittington, Sportsister
The Women’s Sports Magazine