Hannah Mills is a woman on a mission. She wants another gold medal at Tokyo 2020, which, when added to her Rio gold and London silver, would see her become Britain’s most successful female Olympic sailor and top the women’s global medal table in the sport as well.
But instead of getting back aboard the trusted 470 women’s two person dinghy which she’s known and loved for a decade, Mills is going back to school and is attempting her history-making feat in a new class – the 49erFX.
It’s a huge physical and mental challenge for the 29-year-old to make the jump from tight, tactical competition in a well-known boat alongside a well-known crew, to fast and furious racing with a new partner in the notoriously hard to handle high performance women’s skiff, which saw its Olympic Games debut at Rio 2016.
But with teammate Saskia Clark retiring from Olympic campaigning post-Rio, Mills felt the time was right for a new challenge, to test her limits as a sailor and an athlete and attempt to qualify for her third Olympics in a new event.
“The FX to me just presents such a new and exciting shift. Every day I go sailing I’m scared, I’m excited, I’m laughing so much!” smiled Mills.
“For me it was about finding the love of sailing again. It’s an amazing sport, I love the 470 and the racing is awesome. But having done something for ten years, at some point in time I think you have to step away. And I didn’t want to step away and not sail. I wanted to step away and still sail.
“It definitely took a bit of time to reach that decision,” Mills admitted. “Certainly before Rio, I thought that that would be it. I knew that Sas was going to retire and obviously I hoped that we would achieve what we wanted to achieve [before that].
“The last six months of a campaign are so all-encompassing and exhausting going into a Games. It’s just absolutely everything and so you think in that moment that you can’t do that again for another four years. But you forget it is just that last six months that are so encompassing and the rest of the journey is slightly different.”
At the Games and other key World Sailing events the FX is an all-female event, but Mills will spend the first part of the year getting up to speed alongside experienced male crew Alain Sign, who competed alongside Dylan Fletcher in the 49er – big brother of the FX – for the past ten years and at the Rio Games.
“He’s one of the best crews in the world in the 49er class, and for me I didn’t want to be swimming around the ocean for the first year sailing with another person just because both of us would probably be inexperienced.
“It was about using what we’ve got within the British Sailing Team, which is a lot of resources, and linking that up so I can be fast-tracked and hopefully that will help me master the boat quicker than I could do otherwise.”
The mixed duo will compete for the first time at the Princess Sofia Trophy in Palma later this month, and Mills knows it will require a shift in expectations with both sailors having been at the front of their respective events for a number of years.
“As a competitor it’s good to be able to switch your mind from racing to win to racing to learn.
“That’s a really good skill for any racing sailor. I think it’ll be great fun and it’ll be really good having Al there as he’s very experienced. He can probably calm me down when I’m panicking going downwind at 20 knots and there’s 15 other boats coming at me!
“With the FX it’s much faster and shorter racing, so everything just happens a lot, lot quicker,” Mills continued. “The fleet gets spread out a little bit more. You have to be very good at planning ahead and looking at situations before they happen because you’re going that much faster.
“It will be really interesting to see what the racing’s like. Palma will be my first look at some racing with other boats and it’ll be quite scary I think to have 30 other boats around me, having gone from none!”
In the Olympic medal stakes, if Mills were successful in her mission at Tokyo 2020, two golds and a silver would make her Britain's most successful female Olympic sailor. Globally, she would also surpass Spanish two-time Olympic Champion Theresa Zabell, and Mills's medal colours would also trump the higher medal count of windsurfing duo Alessandra Sensini from Italy (gold, silver and two bronze medals) and Barbara Kendall of New Zealand (gold, silver and bronze) in the worldwide women’s sailing medal table.
But she knows the scale of the task she is facing to be in with that chance in the FX.
“It's a big challenge, that’s for sure. I’m not deluded that I’m going to step into the FX and everything will be rosy! But I think that challenge is really positive for me,” the Cardiff sailor reflected. “I’m super motivated to go sailing, to get fit and strong and heavy. With the FX being a bigger boat, I’m going to need to put on some weight which is a challenge in itself as I’m quite a tiny person! I’ll need to put on about ten percent of my body weight, which is quite a lot.
“There are loads of little things like that which are new challenges and which I’ve not had to do before in the 470. That’s why I’m looking forward to it and why I’ve done it, because it is stretching me in ways I’ve not been stretched before. It’s going to be an interesting year.
“Obviously it is all about winning a gold medal in Tokyo and I have to be realistic if that’s in an FX or a 470,” continued Mills, who will look to forge an all-female team later this year.
“To me right now I’m fully committed to the FX and I’m going to be giving that as good a shot as I can.”