Tokyo 2020: "I've really felt loss, emptiness and confusion as to what to do next"

Hannah Mills is one of the first athletes to be named in Team GB’s Tokyo 2020 squad, but this isn’t her first Olympics.

Mills is the current world and Olympic champion in the 470 dinghy sailing class. She is aiming for a third medal after winning silver at London 2012 and Gold in Rio 2016. 

Team GB’s sailing qualifying process is a closely guarded secret to avoid interference from other nationalities so Mills can’t share details of qualifying, but she says that being selected for a third time “is pretty mad actually.”

She explains: “Just because you’ve done it before doesn’t mean it’s a given to be able to go again. In sailing it’s really hard to requalify because we only get one spot per Olympic class.”

History in the making

Things are different heading into Tokyo – it’s the first time Mills will be at an Olympics with her new partner Eilidh McIntyre. Her former partner Saskia Clark retired after Rio. She’s also returning as Olympic Champion.

Then there’s the small matter of becoming the most decorated British female Olympic sailor, which she will become if she wins gold in Tokyo. Mills insists she’s not getting hung up on this: “That’s a side thing that will be amazing if it happened, but I can’t control that happening or not. I can just control what I do in the next 10 months.”

It does come in handy though: “It’s there in the background and if some mornings I need a little bit of extra motivation then I think about it.”

Similarly, even though Mills’ and McIntyre’s sights are firmly set on gold, Mills says that can’t become all-consuming: “Going with just that approach is quite dangerous because the sport is sport and things happen. You can only control what you can control.”

It is about the bigger picture. Mills explains: “Rather than only dreaming about the gold medal, it’s dreaming about a gold medal and all the pieces that it’s going to take to get that.”

Training for Tokyo

This will be important because Tokyo looks set to be quite a challenge. Their first experience in Japanese conditions was during the World Championships this year. Mills describes it as “unbelievably hot and humid”.

Mills can’t recall experiencing anything like it: “My hands were covered in blisters because when you’re out on the water your hands go like you’ve been in a warm a hot bath for a couple of hours. Suddenly all your skin is flaking off. Then you add ropes into the mix and blisters just come everywhere. By the end of the first week there, I could barely hold the ropes without being in quite a lot of pain.”

Spending hours on end in the heat was also challenging: “Our days in the sun are sort of seven to eight hours, which is a bit of a war of attrition.” 

You’d guess then that Mills and McIntyre will be heading out to Japan early to acclimatise for the Olympics, but they won’t be: “We spoke to some people about it and whether it’s beneficial and actually based on the science behind adapting your body to deal with the heat we can that do back here in the lab over a two week period.”

There are positives about sailing in Japan, even if it doesn’t sound like it. Mills explains: “It’s massive waves, pretty good wind – champagne sailing we’d call it, it’s beautiful.”

Despite battling the heat, Mills and McIntyre placed first at the World Championship, so their partnership is clearly working. Mills describes winning as amazing, but adds that there is no time for complacency: “It opened our eyes to a lot of things. It’s focused us this winter on what we need to get better at and what we need to get right for going into next year.”

A new partnership

Adjusting to a new sailing partner has been an adventure all of its own for Mills. She says: “It’s been really exciting, it’s been a challenge because it’s different and there’s a lot of figuring out and understanding how each other responds in different situations.”

The biggest adjustment is finding a new way to communicate, Mills explains: “You’re two in a boat, but you can’t hear each other that much a lot of time, there’s no time to have big long discussions about decisions. Getting a common language has been a big one to get right and that’s still ongoing.”

Mills very nearly retired after Rio, tempted to end her career on a high and at the same time as her partner Saskia. Instead, she decided she still had the motivation to go for a third Olympics.

“I thought it’s such an incredible thing to be a part of the Olympic Games, it’s such a unique opportunity. I’m fit, healthy and I’ve got the motivation and someone who wants to team up with me who I believe is going to be good enough to try and win another gold with. I decided I’d be mad not to.”

What is next?

With so much focus on the Olympics, it seems hard to imagine that Mills would have time to think of anything other than training. When I ask Mills if she has the time to consider what she’ll do after Tokyo, I expect to be told no.

Her response is quite the opposite: “I’ve been really conscious this time that I’m quite likely to retire after Tokyo. I haven’t 100 per cent said that but it’s very likely, so I’m definitely thinking about what’s next.”

Potential retirement isn’t Mills’ only reason for looking beyond Tokyo 2020. She says: “It’s a funny time after the Olympics because you’ve put everything into this one thing and it’s such a long time in the making, and then suddenly it happens and win or lose, it’s done.”

Mills explains that after both London and Rio, she’s been left feeling empty and lonely: “I’ve really felt loss, emptiness and confusion as to what to do next. I guess you lose the focus.” 

To alleviate this, Mills recounts how she is hoping to forge a career in the environmental sector when she retires. She’s already started campaigning for less single-use plastics in sport.

Working in the ocean, Mills has seen first-hand the impact of our plastic addiction. In partnership with the International Olympic Committee she launched the Big Plastic Pledge: “We’re fully-focused on single-use plastic because it’s a real measurable area, a real area that as individuals we have a lot of control over and a lot of power to help implement change and to pressure brands into changing how they do things.”

It’s early days but Mills calls the response “amazing”, especially from the sailing community who see the damaging effects of plastic day-in-day-out.

For now, Mills has an Olympics to get ready for. With a gold medal and history on the line, her future is still all to play for.

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