Hannah Mills and Eilidh McIntyre talk to Andy Rice about winning the gold which sealed Mills' position as the greatest female Olympic sailor of all time

The Medal Race should have been straightforward for Hannah Mills and Eilidh McIntyre. Having sailed a really solid qualifying series in the 470 Women’s event, the British duo carried a 14-point advantage into the Medal Race ahead of their closest rivals, the French.

Five years earlier Hannah Mills, who was then sailing with Saskia Clark, won the regatta with a race to spare. Rules say you still have to go around the race course and finish. Pretty straightforward, you’d think, but Mills and Clark were paranoid about any possible thing that might go wrong – gear failure, falling foul of another boat, being capsized on, and so on.

Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark celebrating their gold in Rio 2016. Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Of course Mills and Clark won that gold medal in Rio, and here in a similar position was Hannah Mills again – this time with Games first-timer Eilidh McIntyre. There was the same concern about sailing a clean race, whilst also having to keep an eye on the French.

Down the final run before the last turning mark to the finish, GBR was in second place with the French behind them. All going to plan. But it was tight at the mark and the Brits took a wide berth at the mark, not wanting to do anything that could put the gold at risk.

In being so conservative the British dropped from second to fifth, just behind the Polish who had just passed them at the mark, still just ahead of the French. The gold was assured, while the last-mark reshuffle moved the silver from France to Poland.

Mills and McIntyre en-route to gold in the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Photo: Sailing Energy / World Sailing

To France, the reshuffle looked suspicious. They protested the British, alleging team racing tactics with the Polish. Within a few seconds of finishing, relief and elation at winning the gold quickly turned to horror and fear that the medal might be snatched away from the British in the most controversial of circumstances. Social media lit up with light-hearted memes implying the Brits and Polish were very cosy together, as well as some nastier stuff on Twitter.

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Mills and McIntyre never got their moment being raised aloft by their team mates in their victorious 470. “It was good that Hannah kept it together,” said McIntyre at the press conference an hour later, “because I basically fell apart and I think I was in a shock, to be honest.”

A hearing was quickly held, the French protest was dismissed, and the gold was confirmed for Great Britain. Forty-five minutes later than they would have liked, but anyway. No hard feelings either, McIntyre added. “We had a moment with these girls and hugged it out. They’re such fantastic competitors. We’ve had so many tussles with them. So to stand on the podium with them, that is a huge privilege for us.”

After growing up with a gold medal hanging on the wall in the family home, Eilidh has matched her dad’s achievement, the gold medal that Mike McIntyre won in the Star keelboat back in 1988, six years before his daughter was born.

Celebrations on the water for Mills and MacIntyre. Sailing Energy / World Sailing

There were tears on the podium as they received their gold medals, tears of relief more than outright joy. Even an hour later when I was interviewing Hannah Mills, she hadn’t really started to celebrate. “We were just so focussed on executing our best race today. That was probably my last 470 race. So I was quite emotional as well and just trying to pull those thoughts away and just focus on getting around the course to do what we needed to do to get the gold.”

When I worked with Mills a couple of years earlier when we shared live commentary duties at Weymouth for the 49er and Nacra European Championships, she admitted she had reached an age where she was struggling to summon up the competitive spirit to really race and fight at the highest level.

It didn’t come naturally to her anymore. I asked her about this again, because clearly Mills had got her competitive mojo back together for Tokyo. “I think when you get older, your priorities change a little bit. And there’s other things in life beyond just your skill and yeah, that has its own challenges.

“And it can sometimes be hard to find that grit, determination and everything that’s required to to win a gold medal. But, you know, this last year, with Covid and everything that’s gone on, the privilege we have felt as athletes to train and carry on almost as normal, that means so much. And of course the Olympic Games is like nothing else when it comes to bringing out that competitive edge.”

With the 470 event going from separate Men and Women’s fleets into a single Mixed 470 for the next Olympic Regatta in Marseille three years from now, this was the last time Mills and McIntyre would race together at Olympic level.

Now confirmed as the greatest ever female Olympic sailor, with two golds and a silver, it was highly unlikely Mills would go around again. But McIntyre is keen to find a male helm and aim for that second gold.

As for Mills, she’ll no doubt put more time and effort into promoting her athlete-driven campaign to reduce single-use plastic, the Big Plastic Pledge.

She was grateful to be given the opportunity to talk about the problem at the Olympic press conference. “There are lots of tidelines out there which is where all the rubbish and the seaweed and everything congregates. It’s pretty heartbreaking to see. But it’s everywhere. It’s not just Japan. It’s everywhere.

“This is not one country’s problem. It’s a global problem. And so, yes, we have to do a lot more than we are doing to try and stop this, because the oceans are our breathing source, they’re what give us life. So we must protect them at all costs.”

As one campaign concludes in glory, so the next campaign begins.

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