British sailors Hannah Mills and Saskia Clark have won Olympic gold in the Women's 470 class, making it double Olympic sailing gold for the British Sailing Team. They followed in the footsteps of Finn gold medallist Giles Scott by gaining a big enough points advantage on their rivals to be sure of the gold ahead of the final double-points medal race, as long as they finished the race. It is a fantastic achievement for the silver medallists from 2012 and so well deserved.
I have to admit a bit of bias with this duo; I have a lot of admiration for their teamwork and the way they have worked together since they paired up, relatively last minute ahead of the 2012 Games. I'd followed Hannah Mills' career since she was in Optimists. I interviewed her a few days before the birthday we both share, February 29. At the time she was exactly half my age and about to celebrate her fourth birthday. I recall being struck by her intelligence and spark, which had combined with her obvious natural talent to take the boys on in the Optimist and beat them outright.
Saskia Clark brought maturity and experience to the partnership and it was obvious from the outset that this partnership was something special. While they sailed fantastically to win silver in Weymouth in 2012, it was gold they were after. They had gone into the medal race equal on points with their Kiwi rivals, Jo Aleh and Olivia Powrie, so it was a full on two-boat race for gold. I really felt their pain as they finished the medal race behind the Kiwis, devastated to have lost out on gold (see Olympic sailing concludes with a rush for silver). Speaking after their win, Hannah Mills recalls: "We really felt we could have won the gold in London [2012 Olympics]. We were absolutely gutted not to. That’s what this four years has been about. You never say that too much because you don’t need that extra pressure. But it’s absolutely what we came here for and to have done it is insane.”
This time around, their old rivals were still hot on their heels, in second place after the preliminary series, but Hannah and Saskia finished the preliminary round of 10 races 20 points in front. That meant, in the double-points 10-boat medal race, the British duo simply had to compete in the race and avoid disqualification. Even if they were last and scored 20 points and the Kiwis won the race, it would be enough to take gold. Their position was their just reward after an impressively consistent performance in which they won three out of the preliminary 10 races and never finished outside the top eight.
Speaking after the final day of the preliminaries, Saskia Clark said: “We’ve been really consistent and solid all week. There was a really nice breeze out there and I think that probably settled our nerves a bit because we know we’re one of the fastest in those conditions. We just bashed in three solid races and kept track of what our opponents were doing."
Hannah Mills added: “We knew that if we beat all our main rivals in that last race we would be guaranteed the gold. That obviously goes to your head a little bit, especially when the wind started to die and it started to get a bit wackier. Tensions were high for sure at points but we’re absolutely shocked and stunned, and so relieved. I don’t think it’s sunk in yet and I don’t think it will until we’ve got the medal and it’s there around my neck."
The battle for silver and bronze
For the Kiwis in second, things weren't so straightforward. There was a pack of boats hard on their heels and they needed a good result to be assured of silver. The American duo were just one point behind them, France a further point behind and then Japan just two more points adrift. So the battle for silver and bronze was and truly on. It was a fascinating race to watch, made all the sweeter by the prospect of seeing Britain's 470 girls finally get the gold medals they so narrowly missed out on four years ago.
Women's 470 class medal race
The weather in Rio showed it was the true master as it delayed the medal race for 24 hours. When the race finally got underway, the British duo started late, conscious of their only goal - to finish without a disqualification.
With the race on for the other two medals, it proved an exciting race - would the Kiwis hold on to silver? There was quite a battle between New Zealand and USA in particular, with the USA rounding the first mark ahead, the Kiwis third. By the final windward mark Solvenia was in the lead. The Kiwis pulled through to take silver, it was disappointment for the USA's team, with France pulling through to take the bronze. The British duo did the job they needed to do and crossed the line in eighth place. The gold was theirs.
The gold medal winners
Commenting on the final race, Hannah Mills said: “That last race was really hard. We had to finish the Medal Race, but at the same time there was a massive battle behind us for silver and bronze and we didn’t want to be the boat that tacked on someone, causing them to lose a medal. We honestly just tried to stay out of it, it was the right thing to do."
Saskia Clark said: "It wasn’t a forgone conclusion today; we knew we could have lost the medal. We didn’t want to look stupid stood here without a medal after everyone had already been cheering for us, so we knew we had to be sensible and just do the same boring routine things that we’ve been doing for the last ten days. The big fear was suffering a breakage, such as the mast breaking, so we couldn’t finish the race."
After they crossed the line, it was time to celebrate. Hannah Mills said: "It was emotional. We bounded up the beach [afterwards]. I just wanted to see my mum. She’s made it out here all the way to Rio and she’s been there the whole time supporting me.
"It’s an amazing moment to share with everyone. You’re out on the water on your own so it’s nice to come back and see everyone. Rio is such a challenging venue but as a British sailing team we’ve been so well prepared for it and I think that’s really helped us feel at home. I love sailing here, it offers everything for us."
Saskia Clark said: "We always knew how tricky this venue was going to be. The five different courses have five very different personalities and you can prepare for a course one day and then be moved with two hours’ notice.
"As a team we were really well prepared for that and we really nailed it – kept our heads about us, stayed in the present during the race and never got too far ahead of ourselves until we crossed the line just now.
"As things stand right now that is my last competitive 470 race. I’m going to have a bit of downtime; Hannah and I are going to New York with some friends to do a sailing event, which we are excited about. Then I’ve got a job with a charity that’s pretty close to all our hearts – the Andrew Simpson Sailing Trust."