Olympic sailing duo Mills & Clark on the up

470 Girls - Hannah Mills & Saskia Clark

470 Girls – Hannah Mills & Saskia Clark

Most of my life is spent covering football, predominantly that in the Premier League. It is, as you would expect, the job I have always dreamed of.

Just five years ago I was covering the Eastleigh & District Mini Soccer League for a Saturday sports paper whereas now my job sees me watch the very best footballers in the world.

That said, the players and management staff involved often frustrate me. Clichés and down right idiocy pepper their responses to the most menial of questions.

That or they fail to answer (or perhaps understand?) the questions. That is why I have fallen in love with sailing.

I work for the host news agency for London 2012, where each sport has been assigned a correspondent to provide in-depth coverage throughout the Games.

Whether it was because I have a southern accent or grew up near the sea, I was asked to cover sailing back in late February.

What I do know is that it is that it has allowed me to meet athletes that not only can string a sentence together but are bloody good people to boot.

Over the past eight months, I have spent a fair bit of time down in Weymouth getting to know Great Britain’s prospects ahead of next year’s Olympics.

From the indomitable Ben Ainslie to windsurfing supremos Nick Dempsey and Bryony Shaw, each and every one of them have impressed me as both athletes and human beings.

Nobody has impressed me more than 470 girls Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark, especially as the pair only joined forces seven days before I took up my role.

Having finished sixth in Beijing, the latter teamed up with double Olympic gold medallist Sarah Ayton for a tilt at Olympic success next year.

The pair were making steady progress under the tutorship of two-time Olympic silver medallist Joe Glanfield, finishing fifth in their first World Championships together.

Then, out of the blue, Ayton retired citing the difficulty of spending time away from her young son Thomas and husband, the aforementioned Dempsey.

“I know Sarah to be a very determined and focused person and on leaving Miami (after the Rolex Miami OCR in January) we were still very determined to achieve what we set out to do,” Clark told me earlier this year.

“I guess I didn’t think she would give up her goal and her dream. Saying that, we lived together in Miami with Thomas and I witnessed the situation build-up to what ultimately became an untenable situation for her.

“It’s not as if I don’t understand as I totally appreciate where she made the decision from. I am gutted but she obviously thought about the decision very hard and didn’t think she could make the balance work.

“As much as it wasn’t going to work for her it wasn’t going to work for me as well, so it’s kind of given me the opportunity to work with somebody where I could still be selected.”

As a result of Ayton’s decision, Clark was left with two choices – find a new partner or give up on a chance of competing in an Olympics on home waters.

Clark plumped for the former and, after whittling down a “practical” four-person shortlist, just a week after the shock announcement former World Youth champion Hannah Mills agreed to fill the gap in Clark’s 470 boat.

“Both of us have done quite a lot of crew swapping and changing over the last few years and it is kind of one of the first times we have both gone into a boat with someone that has done a long time in the full 470,” Clark said of her partnership with the 23-year-old.

“It means we can really hit the ground running than one of us having to teach the other about the about the 470.”

The pair spent time getting to know one another in Mallorca, finishing their maiden regatta together, the Trofeo SAR Princess Sofia MAPFRE, in a respectable 13th place.

While conceding from the offset the pair faced a “tall order” to qualify for the Olympics, their progress since has been nothing short than astonishing.

Mills and Clark finished second in the Semaine Olympique Francaise and Skandia Sail For Gold regattas, before just missing out on gold on the last day of the Olympic test event.

Such performances saw the pair named among 11 sailors confirmed in Team GB’s 550-strong squad for the Games last month.

“We’ve been given a pretty huge task to get a gold medal and that means a lot of hard work in the next year,” Mills said of her Olympic debut. “Now we have to properly plan every hour of every day of what we’re going to do for the next year and then get to work.

“It makes a huge impact in a sport like sailing to be picked so far in advance as you can make a lot of technical developments to our boat and our sail that we wouldn’t necessarily have the time to do if selection continued.

“We can now spend the next 11 months entirely focused on winning next year as opposed to focussing on different venues where different things are priorities.”

From the outside the pair look the perfect blend of youth and experience, with the fledgling partnership proving so on the water.

And having spent a fair bit of time with the pair, you can tell their personalities suit one another too.

Clark is witty, intelligent and focussed on success and Mills is the same, while also being one of the funniest people I have ever met in any sport, never mind sailing.

Their personalities off the water and their enthusiasm on it makes me suspect they may well come home with a medal next year and could be Britain’s stars on the waves.

While you may not have heard of them before reading this, make sure you keep an eye out for them next year.


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