Performing on the Biggest Stage in Sailing

Published on September 19th, 2016

Hannah Mills is one of those Brits that has been riding the escalator up for some time.

At 14 she was the first girl to win the Optimist British Nationals, and the next year she bettered any previous British result at the Optimist World Championships by finishing in fifth place overall and being crowned Girls World Champion. That was 2003, and she has followed it with winning the 2006 420 Worlds, the 2008 470 Junior Worlds, and the 2012 470 Worlds.

Now 28 years, Hannah and her teammate Saskia Clark utterly crushed the competition in the 470 Women event at the 2016 Rio Olympic Games. If you wonder what it takes to excel at the Olympic Games, Hannah is an example of how continued dominance on big stages is how you prepare to perform on the biggest stage in the sport of Sailing.

How did they do it? Hannah explains here


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Hannah Mills at the 2003 Optimist World Championships in Gran Canaria.

It was one of the most special but difficult events of my life for a number of reasons. There was of course a lot of pressure to win gold, mainly that we put on ourselves after the disappointment of a Silver Medal at London 2012. But for me, there was the added pressure I felt of being part of such a special team with Saskia Clark and Joe Glanfield (our coach).

It was honestly the most incredible team to be a part of and I can’t thank either of them enough for being so amazing through the thick and thin of the last 5 years! I absolutely wanted to deliver my best performance in Rio, to achieve what I knew we could and not feel like I had let either of them down. This was it. Our last shot together….

But I was completely un-prepared for how different an experience Rio would feel compared to London.

London felt like the official Games, where you absolutely knew it was the Olympics and everything was where it should be. Rio, however, felt like a very relaxed Games where you really had to focus on the fact it was the Olympics and this was it! It might not sound like much, but for me, it made a big difference and Rio not feeling like such a big occasion was something I needed to come to terms with, and fast!

A virus the week before racing started didn’t particularly help in preparations. Four days off the water before racing began did not feel like the ideal preparation for the Olympics, however, this was where our experience came in. We’ve been there before many times over the last four years with a few injuries along the way, and having to step back into the boat and perform straight away was something we absolutely knew we could do.

The first few days of the Games was honestly not that enjoyable. I woke up, had to get some food in me, still feeling fairly exhausted and with now just a cold. We battled through, Sas was amazing and after some incredible come backs on day 1 (we described that day as “saving the furniture”). As the old saying goes, you can’t win it on day 1, but you certainly can lose it.

Day 2 loomed with 20-25kts and some of the biggest waves we have ever sailed in! I genuinely didn’t think I was going to have the energy to get through the day. Still, somewhere within you find it. Perhaps it’s the adrenaline or just the absolute desire of four years work not wanting to be thrown down the drain because of a bit of a cold. We had probably one of the best days racing ever! We found a new gear upwind; it was an incredible feeling just being a little bit faster than almost everyone around us. What a time to do it.

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A first in race 1 and then a moments lapse in judgement causing a capsize in race 2 when we we’re leading just a few hundred meters from the finish. Well you might think the toys would come out the pram at this point, but no, that’s not a team that is completely focused on the job at hand. And that’s not us. We did a very fast recovery and managed to come through to still take 6th. Phew!

Finally starting to feel like my normal self (still half asleep in the mornings obviously), day 3 was a tough one with just one race late in the day. You know this is the time to smash it. On a one race day you have to be switched on and make sure you are completely ready to nail the first decision. We were, doing a port flyer at the Olympic Games – epic! We lead the race from start to finish. An amazing feeling.

Day 4 of racing, supposedly a 3-race day, came after a rest day where we literally just slept and ate. We raced the first race in very light tricky conditions – very much how we thought Rio was going to be for the majority of the Games. This was where I did lose the plot for a few minutes. In 3rd or 4th on the final run, I made a huge error, somehow missing the leeward marks (I can only think that I saw the finish mark instead and just didn’t check). Honestly I don’t know how or what happened.

I felt physically sick when we gybed and I realised what had happened, slipping back to 8th. I just couldn’t believe it. I had let everyone down in that split second moment and it hurt. For a few minutes I was completely in the moment, no big picture, nothing. Just pure emotion. When you make an error early in the race, or where you at least have some time to rectify it, moving on is fairly easy. But when it was so finite and there was nothing I could do to redeem it, wow, that was painful. Especially when it was something so silly. Anyway, we re-grouped and I got my sh*t together ready for another go in race 3. We won the race 🙂

Day 5 was the final day of fleet racing. With just a small lead over the Americans and a very strong pack a few more points back, we just wanted to try and gain a few points on the people closest to us to get a little bit of breathing space going into the Medal Race. I have to say, this is one of the proudest days racing I have ever done.

We literally nailed it. From our communication, which we have spent months working on, to our boat speed and starting, it was just the perfect day. We did it, we knew what we had to do going into the last race of the day and we did it. Posting a 3-2-3, we were now 20 points clear of the fleet going into the Medal Race. The Gold Medal was secured…something we have never managed before. What a time to do it.

The next few days passed slowly and excruciatingly!! We had a long wait to do the Medal Race and get the Gold Medal in our hands – until that happened we just couldn’t believe it was real. What a day, seeing my mum on the beach was honestly the most special moment in the world for me. My little mum…she came all the way to Rio! The podium was what I have dreamed about since watching Roger Black win his Silver Medal and having the National Anthem played for us felt like being on top of the world!

A special mention for Team Jolly – Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie (NZL) – who we have had an amazing rivalry with over the past five years. They are incredible competitors and we were hugely pleased to see them get the Silver. Also to Camille Lecointre and Hélène Defrance (FRA) for the Bronze… such amazing competitors. Finally, to the other teams, particularly USA, SLO, NED and AUT. Throughout the campaign we have had many battles with all of you and have loved racing against you guys.

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