Wanting it all for female athletes

Published on May 15th, 2022

British sailing’s golden girl is sitting out most of this season’s SailGP due to pregnancy but is targeting a quick return to the water. Story by Tom Cary for The Telegraph:

Hannah Mills is not accustomed to sitting on the sidelines. As the most decorated female sailor in Olympic history, and now a key part of Great Britain’s SailGP team, the 34-year-old is used to being in the thick of the action, out on the water. But when Season 3 of the global sailing series got underway May 14-15 in Bermuda, Mills could only watch on helplessly from the team’s chase boat.

In fairness, the golden girl of British sailing has a decent reason for sitting this event out. Mills is four months pregnant, a fact she is now making public not only because people are going to start asking why she is not on the boat, but also because the first hint of a bump is just beginning to show.

“It’s all a bit mind-blowing,” Mills admits. “You have such a strong identity as an athlete, you know? For so many years it’s been ‘I’m trying to win an Olympic medal…’ And then you transition out of the Olympics, which is quite mentally challenging in itself…. And now I’m going to be a mum. It’s a lot to wrap my head around.”

Getting pregnant was, Mills says, not only a big decision for herself but for her fiancé Nick Dempsey, the three-time Olympic windsurfing medalist.

Dempsey has two children already by his first marriage. But he has been “amazing”. “He’s probably even more excited than I am,” Mills says. “I keep saying ‘It’s easy for you to be excited, you don’t have to carry the thing!’ But he’s loving it.”

Even so, Mills says, she “wrestled with it” in the first couple of months after last summer’s Tokyo Games. “It was that classic thought process in terms of being a female athlete,” she says. “How old are you? Do you want a family? What would be the impact on your career?”

Ultimately, Mills says, her desire to be a mother won the day, even if that means sitting out most of this season’s SailGP, a significant sacrifice given the booming opportunities for women in this area, not to mention the fact that we are less than two years out from the first women’s America’s Cup, where Mills is penciled in to skipper the British boat.

“Is now the best time career-wise? Probably not,” reflects Mills, who says she contacted Laura Kenny (6-time Olympic medalist for GBR) for advice and was touched to receive a response. “I’m a very ambitious person. But life-wise you just never know. If you wait two or three years you might not be able to [get pregnant]. So that, for me anyway, trumped everything.”

Mills’s reference to her ambitious nature is no idle boast. This is an athlete Ben Ainslie identified as a kindred spirit from the moment she broke into the British sailing team during his final Olympic campaign building up to 2012. A sailor who, like him, would not say boo to a goose off the water, but undergoes a sort of Hulk-like conversion once she climbs onto a boat.

Whether it is Olympic dinghies, the environment (Mills is the founder of Big Plastic Pledge, which asks athletes across sport to tackle the use of single-use plastic), SailGP or the America’s Cup, she is fully invested.

Mills makes absolutely no bones about wanting to return to sailing as soon as humanly possible after giving birth. The baby is due in mid-October and she confesses she is already eyeing up the Dubai leg of SailGP in mid-November.

“Of course, that might not be possible,” she adds. “Yes, I’m ambitious. But at the same time, I’m very conscious that you just have to go with what happens and, of course, put the baby’s health first.”

Fortunately, for the same reason he rates her so highly as a sailor, Mills has a boss who is happy to give her as long as she needs.

“It’s slightly different for men obviously,” Ainslie notes. “But I took time out last summer with our son. So I completely understand that balance. Hannah is such a huge part of the team, we’ll just work around her return.”

In the meantime, Mills is hardly resting up. After a first trimester which she describes as “hell”, most of which she spent on the sofa feeling nauseous, she is back at work. The reason she is in Bermuda is because she has a new role in the team, one created specifically for her, which is to oversee the British team’s youth and the women’s pathway. There is a Youth America’s Cup due to take place alongside the inaugural Women’s America’s Cup in 2024.

“It’s actually kind of perfect because the boat both squads will be using – a 40ft version of the AC75 Cup boat – hasn’t yet been built,” she says. “We’re probably not going to see it until this winter. In the meantime I can get on with planning and identifying and recruiting.”

With Ainslie and Mills having committed to going 50-50 in terms of male-female split on the youth boat, Mills reckons she will ultimately have to recruit a squad of “five, maybe six women” who can work across the youth and women’s campaigns. “The fact I can’t sail actually offers a great opportunity to look at other women and get them integrated,” Mills notes.

Make no mistake, though, Mills wants to be on that helm in 2024. Possibly even on the Cup boat itself in time. “Why not?” she says, standing 5’2″ tall. “Not all the roles on the AC75 are power-based. I would like to. 100 per cent. It’s probably a step too far this time around but in the future.”

Mills takes inspiration from other sporting mothers and she too wants to be a trailblazer. “I appreciate not every female athlete wants a career and a family,” she says. “Obviously, that’s a totally personal choice. But whether it’s a boy or a girl, I want my child to grow up and see that women can do both if they want to.”

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