They were a journalist’s dream: two feisty blondes in a boat winning Olympic gold at Rio and she was the one hanging precariously on the end of a wire inches above the water in a tiny craft sailing faster than a cross-Channel ferry.
Saskia Clark spent nearly 30 years preparing for Olympic glory, years of training in all weathers, setbacks, disappointments and dashed hopes. Finally it all came right on a scorching day in Rio last August when Clark and Hannah Mills won gold in the women’s 470 dinghy sailing event – and the daydreams of an eight-yearold venturing out in her own boat on the sheltered Essex creeks, finally came true.
Clark and Mills, 37 and 28, awarded MBEs in the recent New Year’s honours, had won silver at the London Olympics and Clark had come sixth at the Beijing Olympics in 2008. Although still fit and ambitious, Clark knew that Rio would probably be her last chance for Olympic gold. “I had decided before the games that I would retire from 470 racing after Rio but with Hannah helming I knew we had the best chance ever to finally get gold,” she remembers.
“We had sailed together for six years and the first moment we were in a boat together I knew we could do something special.
“We have been together through ups and downs, and have been with each other all the way. We worked so hard to get the upgrade to gold and on the day we just went for it.”
A multiple champion in different boat classes, Welsh-born Mills, a former Young Sailor of the Year, had steered her way to every UK title by the age of 14. When Clark’s previous sailing partner and helmsman, double Olympic champion Sarah Ayton, retired 18 months before the London games, Mills came aboard.
“We just clicked at once,” Clark remembers. “You need empathy to make the split-second decisions in 470 racing and we got on really well from the start.”
A 4.7-metre 470 boat wobbles like a jelly in inexperienced hands. Designed over 50 years ago, it still planes like a powerboat in a high wind and takes some handling at optimum performance. As always, for the Rio races, Mills helmed and Clark crewed.
“People always assumed that because I’m eight years older than Hannah, I will be at the helm, but it’s all about optimum weight in sailing,” Clark explains. “The helmsman in a 470 needs to weigh 50-60kg while the person working the sails should tip the scales at around 70kg. It also helps that I’m 5ft 9in because that allows me more leverage to work the ropes and balancing out the boat by hanging off the side from my trapeze.
“You have different responsibilities in terms of who is making what observations depending on what leg of the course you are on. There’s continual discussion about sailsetting and how to drive the boat to its maximum. There’s constant reevaluation of numerous factors which make all the difference between winning and losing.
“We get very fond of our boats – they get to become the third member of the team.”
Clark’s spiritual home is still the sailing-mad island village of West Mersea in rural Essex, where her parents live and where she first learned to sail.
She goes back as often as she can and always tries to make it for the West Mersea town regatta, with its traditional oyster smack and sailing barge races and a warm welcome in the pubs and clubs.
“Sailing in Essex offers you everything. There’s the safety of the creeks to learn in and explore, offshore racing, and also the tight racing on the Blackwater estuary where you have to understand the tides and dodge the mudbanks! Not many places have all these things – and more.”
So not surprisingly, West Mersea was Clark’s first port of call when she arrived back from Rio with her gold medal.
“This is always home and the coolest thing ever is to share the medal with family, friends and community,” she said at a yacht club celebration which ended with a party and fireworks long into the night.
They even painted the local post-box gold in Clark’s honour.
Strangely, what is now her way of life, started pretty inauspiciously.
“I really hated sailing at first,” she told us. “But I got going with it and if you lived at West Mersea it’s what everyone does and I gradually came to like it.”
At eight she was “mucking around the creeks at home” in her black and yellow-striped wooden Optimist dinghy Bumblebee, but even then an Olympic career was her dream.
“Sailing was something we all did together as a family. At first I disliked sailing on my own but once I developed the sailing bug, I loved the adventure and the competition. I thrived off the constant battle to prove that I was as good as, or better than, the boys.”
That didn’t take long. At 12 she was in the GB team for the Optimist European and World Championships and a year later was part of the British national Optimist squad and girls’ national champion.
By the time she had reached her school’s sixth form, Clark had moved up into Laser sailing and was European women’s champion.
Narrowly missing out on the gold at the London games – we went into the final medal race in first place but were pipped to the post by New Zealand – only made us more determined to give it a real go in Rio
“I was very lucky that when I was 18, Lottery funding came in, and I could become professional. It was a wonderful opportunity.”
Her Olympic chance finally came in 2008 with a sixth place 470 class finish alongside Christina Bassadone at Beijing.
“I was massively disappointed to only finish sixth,” Clark admits. “I needed another partner but no one seemed quite right until Hannah came along. She was a brilliant helmsman and we battled our way to the London Olympics in the nick of time, winning the World Championships on the way.
“Narrowly missing out on the gold at the London games – we went into the final medal race in first place but were pipped to the post by New Zealand – only made us more determined to give it a real go in Rio.”
Their campaign could have started better – the pair were robbed at knifepoint during an early training session and all their sailing gear stolen.
“We were in the wrong place at the wrong time,” is how Clark puts it. “But we got over it.”
Just how much became apparent on that sweltering day last August in Guanabra Bay, overlooked by Sugarloaf Mountain, when Clark and Mills, now fourth in the world rankings, only needed to finish eighth in the final medal race after three victories in the first series, to finally get their hands on these elusive golds.
But nothing is certain in sailing. First, the medal race was postponed for a day because of lack of wind and Team GB parties were put on hold. For example, some minor technical disqualification could have denied the GB pair top spot.
“There was always the chance of something breaking and stopping us finishing,” Clark says. “It wasn’t a foregone conclusion. We could have lost the medal and felt so stupid.”
As it happens they sailed calmly into eighth place, did the job, beat their New Zealand bete noires and sailed their dinghy up the golden beach to the cheers of flag-waving Brits.
True to her word, Clark has retired from 470 elite dinghy racing but hasn’t sailed into the sunset.
She is a busy ambassador for a sailing trust, is joining an offshore racing team and is considering media projects. “There’s plenty to do,” she says. “But it’s going to be hard to top winning Olympic gold with one of your best mates.”