Tuesday 16 August 2016 and all British eyes are on Giles Scott as he sails his processional medal race around Guanabara Bay to confirm his Olympic Finn gold. Yet deeper in the bay, on the Ponte course, another story was unfolding under the radar. Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, London 2012 silver medalists, were quietly maintaining the consistency that had given them a four-point advantage at the top of the 470 Women’s standings heading into their last three series races that day.
By the end of the day Hannah and Saskia knew, providing they simply completed their medal race without incident, they too would be Olympic champions. It was almost as big a surprise to them as it was everyone else. “We knew the racecourse well, conditions were forecast to be near perfect for our boat speed and for us it was about attacking the day and trying to creep out a few more points’ lead before the medal race,” Hannah recalls.
“But as the day unfolded, we got a third and second from the first two races and it was our coach, Joe Glanfield, who quickly did the maths and worked out we could effectively win the gold in the last race of the day. "Everything then became about what happened in that race as it could be such a pivotal moment. Conditions were changing all the time and that probably helped us stay focused and not get caught up in what might be. We had to attack the race.”
The Brits knew if they could finish ahead of the London 2012 champion Kiwis, Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie, and finish no more than one place behind Camille Lecointre and Hélène Defrance (FRA) in that final series race, gold would be theirs. They did. Cue mass celebrations on the boat with coach Joe and the dawning realisation ashore about the story that was playing out on Ponte. The ecstasy at knowing they would go into the medal race in the unimaginable position of being champions elect consumed them as the beaming pair were photographed back on dry land with the Union Jack draped around them.
Yet Hannah admits the ‘what ifs’ had already started. “I didn’t sleep at all that night. Every possible scenario played out in my head. Looking back at London, I felt we didn’t plan for every eventuality for the medal race and it cost us. It was the polar opposite in Rio.” The lack of sleep and emotional rollercoaster left Hannah shattered with their medal race ahead on Wednesday. Yet little breeze and unfavourable wind direction put paid to any chance of getting a fair race in and the race was postponed 24 hours.
Although admitting she was in a “foul mood” at the time, Hannah admits it probably did her a favour in hindsight. “That day waiting on the water was just horrendous. I was emotionally gone and had nothing left. But if we had won the medal that day I couldn’t have enjoyed it.” With a better night’s sleep under Hannah’s belt, a strategy to stay out of the way of everyone on the racecourse and a boat packed with enough spares to fix any breakages, Hannah and Saskia eventually sealed the deal on Thursday 18 August.
The TV pictures of them sailing to the beach for an emotional reunion with their families will live long in the memory. Hannah admits what happened next was a whirlwind. An end-of-regatta party at the British Sailing Team hotel was followed by a day of media commitments and packing up as Hannah’s exhausted body went into “complete meltdown”.
Illness stopped her attending the Olympic closing ceremony at the Maracanã Stadium, while ferocious stomach pains, due to a lactose intolerance diagnosed just before the Games, meant she couldn’t fully enjoy the “amazing experience” of flying home First Class on the special British Airways medalists plane. Back in Britain, the whirlwind kept spinning to the extent that Hannah jokes she can’t actually remember what she did at all last September.
Interviews, premieres and her personal highlight, appearing on a Question of Sport - “I love Sue Barker, she’s probably the coolest person I met! She was so lovely and chatty.” - all followed before her feet touched the ground again. Only then could she begin to appreciate what she and Saskia had achieved.
“Winning Olympic gold is what you’ve dreamed of for so long you don’t ever let yourself think about what it might be like to achieve it beforehand, so when it happens it’s the most surreal experience and it takes a long time to sink in.
“Even now when I go into sailing clubs and schools with the medal I still look at it and think ‘I can’t believe that’s mine’. It still feels pretty strange 12 months on.” So what next? A nasty concussion – a result of another sailor’s chin accidentally colliding with her temple during a fitness session in Cadiz in January – led to an unplanned spell off the water for the first few months of this year. And, having dabbled with the 49FX just for a different challenge, Hannah was back in the 470 with Eilidh McIntyre, who had recently split from partner Sophie Weguelin, at the Sailing World Cup Final Santander in June.
Less than a month later the pair were 470 World Championship silver medalists in Greece. Despite the competitor in Hannah being disappointed with second, the pair found a synergy to convince them their partnership is worth giving time to develop. “I’ve been really impressed with Eilidh. She is a mega lever! At 23 she’s super pumped for it and for me that’s great having been that person for Sas in 2012.”
Now with the countdown to Tokyo 2020 well and truly on, Hannah, who will be 32 by the next Games, admits she is ready for what is likely to be one final push at becoming the most successful female Olympic sailor ever.
“Your motivations change as you get older,” Hannah adds. “I’ve started a blog I’m enjoying because as athletes we get access to some incredible opportunities and I really want to give some of that experience and advice back to help other people.
“But it’s all eyes on Tokyo. Realistically that’s likely to be my last chance of winning another gold so why would I give that up? We’re so lucky to have the opportunity to do what we do for a living. I’ve definitely still got the passion for it.”