British sailors Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark are set to finally earn their Olympic Gold medal in the 470 class later today – we take a look at their road to victory.
Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark went to Rio with every expectation of a medal. The pairing took Silver at the 2012 Games in Weymouth. However, the women’s 470 class is a tough nut to crack and before the event few would have confidently predicted who would win Gold. Mills and Clark were ranked fourth in the world, and wins at their last two events before Rio – the Weymouth and Hyeres Sailing World Cups – were mixed with a 15th finish at a tricksy 2016 World Championships in Argentina.
Many of the leading competitors in the women’s 470 fleet are now highly experienced. Weymouth Gold medalists Jo Aleh and Polly Powrie (NZL) also returned, older, wiser, and with a full four-year build up to Rio. The French, Austrian and Japanese pairings were clearly capable of topping the Olympic podium as well.
Before the Rio Games, Mills commented: “It would be just an incredible journey to have gone through together and to come out with a Gold medal. There are maybe four or five boats that will probably be challenging for Gold. If we can be challenging come the medal race for Gold then I feel super-confident we can deliver a good final day.
“The London medal race was really tough for us. Halfway through the race we knew it was over. We were getting the silver medal, which was obviously incredible, but it felt more like we had lost the gold medal as opposed to won the silver. It took a while to really appreciate what we had done and really appreciate the silver medal.”
The pair’s chemistry is clear. Both bubbly and whip-smart, they initially brought a balance of raw talent and experience to the partnership. Both had also had a frustrating few years in the British squad before teaming up, and were desperate to fully commit to an Olympic campaign. Colchester-born Clark, who turns 37 next week, attended her first Olympics in 2008 with Christina Bassadone, where they finished sixth. She partnered briefly with double Olympic Gold medallist Sarah Ayton, but the potential dream team was cut short when Ayton retired 18 months before the 2012 Olympics due to family commitments.
Welsh sailor Mills meanwhile, was a member of the development squad in 2011, aged just 22. Having had a variety of crews Mills was without a clear route to the Games. Her talent was without doubt: she had already secured a raft of World titles, including the 420 women’s worlds in 2006 and 470 women’s junior title in 2010, having first hit the headlines by winning the Optimist national championships in 2002, the first time a girl had won the title.
The duo worked hard to get up to speed together before London 2012, forming a close-knit partnership based on a shared determination and sense of humour. But with a four year run-up to their next Games they were able re-evaluate their approach. Commenting before they headed to Rio, Clark said: “It feels hugely different this time around. So much has changed: how we do things, the team we were then. We had such a short time to make things happen for London, whereas this cycle we’ve had a lot more time just to think about it all, strip it all back and rebuild it all up.”
The biggest changes, Mills said, were in their communication. “That was where we just got on with it for London. We didn’t have time to really anaylse it. But we’ve made some big changes in how we communicate, the information we pass back and forth between roles, it’s just made us much more consistent sailors.
“Also boat development. We just whacked up what was fast at the time for London, and didn’t look too much more into it really. Whereas this cycle we’ve really thought about how we can maximise our equipment.”
It wasn’t an entirely smooth four years, however. Their coach, Joe Glanfield, stepped back in the dinghy class himself with a view to running his own campaign for Rio, before returning as the girls’ coach in 2014. The pair were also robbed at knifepoint in Rio de Janiero while training at the Olympic venue.
But it all came together for the 2016 Games. The pair won three races outright, picking up three further podium finishes. Crucially, they made no major mistakes, while their rivals Aleh and Powrie were twice given major penalty points. Discarding only an 8th place, Mills and Clark finished the qualifying series of races with a 20-point lead ahead of the Kiwi pair, guaranteeing them the Gold medal if they safely complete the Medal Race.
A near-speechless Mills said her reaction afterwards was shock: “It’s disbelief, I didn’t trust Joe, our coach, that he got the points right and it took a while, it still hasn’t sunk in! You try not to let it affect you too much, but we knew if we beat all our main rivals in that last race we would be guaranteed the gold.
“Tensions were high but I’m absolutely shocked, stunned and so relieved.”
“I remember standing on the podium [at London] and thinking ‘I just really want the anthem. We know the words!’ This Olympics especially, there has been so many gold medallists from Team GB and you watch them at the medal ceremony and they are up on the podium with the anthem playing and that feeling is what you desperately, desperately want for yourself. I can’t wait.”
Rio is likely to be Clark’s last Olympic campaign, so expect tonight’s final race and medal ceremony to be an emotional one for the pair who have spent six years together. For the sailors behind them, meanwhile, there is a tough duel for Silver still to be played out, with just four points separating Aleh and Powrie, the USA team of Anne Haeger and Briana Provancha, Camille Leconintre and Hélène Defrance (FRA) and Ai Kondo Yoshida and Miho Yoshioka (JPN).
Racing begins today with the 470 Women’s Medal Race at 13.05 (local time), followed by the men’s 470, 49er and 49er FX Medal Races.
See full results at http://www.sailing.org/olympics/rio2016/results_centre.php