Hannah Mills became a national treasure in the United Kingdom after she won gold at the Rio 2016 Olympics in 2-person sailing with partner Saskia Clark.
She also developed a purpose while in Brazil, moved by the massive amount of plastic pollution in Guanabara Bay, where the sailing races took place, as well along Copacabana Beach. Two years later, her nonprofit “The Big Plastic Pledge” — which engages elite athletes to reduce their single use plastics usage and to encourage fans to do the same — was born.
GreenSportsBlog talked with Mills about her sailing and green journeys and how she is looking to use her platform going forward on plastic waste as well as other environmental issues.
GreenSportsBlog: Hannah, I have a ton of things to discuss with you so let’s get right to it. When did you get into sailing and what got you about the sport?
Hannah Mills: Well Lew, when I was seven years old, my family and I went on holiday to Cornwall. My two older brothers got to have sailing lessons that year. I so wanted to go but I couldn’t because I was too young by just one year. I was heartbroken.
The next summer rolled around and finally it was my turn. I was sailing solo by the end of the week. I just loved it.
After that I kept progressing quickly, racing in what’s called the Optimist Class for the Under 16s. We got to go all over the world to sail. It was an amazing experience.
GSB: I can imagine. Wait, check that. I can’t imagine traveling all over the world to sail when I was in high school. And I have a darn good imagination! Sounds like you had a natural aptitude for sailing. What goes into being a great sailor?
Hannah: One thing is to have a natural feel for the boat. That is really difficult to teach, and I was lucky to have that. Also, I was always very curious and wanted to learn and understand the strategy, the risk management. I loved the brain part as well as the physical.
And I was very competitive. You see, most of the sailing clubs at that time were mostly made up of boys. I wanted to beat them and usually did!
GSB: I get that you had the physical, the mental and the competitive elements. But I’m guessing many sailors who have those qualities. What drove you to get to the top one percent of the one percent?
Hannah: That goes back to 1996 when I was eight.
That’s when I watched my first Olympics, the Atlanta Games. I thought, ‘Oh my God, this is phenomenal! It is the biggest sporting event in the world. And then when I found out sailing was an Olympic sport, I decided right then and there that I was going to make the team and win gold.
Then, when I was 11, Sir Ben Ainslie came to give a talk at one of our sailing events. He was and still is the U.K.’s most decorated Olympic sailor. I looked at what he was doing and said, ‘I want to do that!’
From then on, I just kept at it, kept working, improving bit by bit.
When I was 15, I got my best result in the Optimist class, placing fifth at the World Championships and was the first girl — in the Optimist, girls and boys race together.
Then I moved up to the 420 class, a two-person boat, because I’m not big enough to be competitive as a single handed sailor. The 420 class has since morphed into the 470s, with those numbers denoting the size of the boats in centimeters.
GSB: How was the adjustment from one to two person racing?
Hannah: Oh, I loved it. The teamwork and the shared problem solving really suited me.
GSB: Now that you’d found your niche, how did you move up to the top of the British sailing ranks?
Hannah: In the summer of 2004, when I was 16, I competed in the trials for the World Championships in Melbourne, Australia. We were the last boat to qualify and get onto the GB team but managed to finish first among those under 17 at the Worlds. That gave me a taste of world class competition.
Then it became a war of attrition to get to the top. To get onto the bottom level of funding from UK Sport, you really need to finish in the top three in your youth discipline at a World Championships. And in 2006, my partner Peggy Webster and I won the 420 Worlds.
Around that time I began my studies in mechanical engineering at the University of Bristol. Actually, I wanted to study environmental science and geography, but I couldn’t do that and continue to sail due to the lengthy field trips required during the holidays.
GSB: After Beijing 2008 came London 2012, your home Olympics. I imagine the competitive fires were burning white hot for you…
Hannah: No doubt! This was the time to make a go of it. So, I put university on hold to sail full-time in 2009, moving to down to Weymouth on the south coast, a hotbed of sailing. And then I set about finding the right partner.
GSB: What was that like?
Hannah: It was hard. Finding the right partner, who has the same determination, desire to win and that complements each other’s skills is a huge challenge. Not surprisingly, most of the experienced people were taken!
GSB: Sheesh! This sounds almost like dating!
Hannah: I know! Anyway, at one point I thought, ‘I’m going to quit. It’s time to move on.’ But I could never give it up.
So, I did as much sailing as I could, took some courses online and then in mid-February 2011, Saskia Clark, a top 470 sailor who had competed in Beijing 2008, became available. A bunch of us went for drinks, all thinking it was going to be retirement for her, but I did joke that we would sail together someday.
And a couple of months later, we jumped on a boat together and had a go at it. We clicked immediately, laughed a lot and pushed hard.
GSB: And I’m guessing that retirement was on hold for Saskia!
Hannah: You guessed right, Lew! She also wasn’t ready to give it up.
The pressure was on almost immediately. We had to show our stuff at the 470 trials in June to make it to London 2012 since only one boat per country per class gets to go.
GSB: What happened?
Hannah: We did well in the run up, winning the World Cup in fact. That gave us momentum going into the trials. We came in second in the Olympic Test Event at Weymouth and then second again at the trials. Because of our World Cup win and strong campaign all spring, we felt like we had earned it.
But there is subjectivity to who gets picked so we weren’t sure. It could’ve been taken away from us.
It was crazy! Saskia’s then-boyfriend, also a sailor, got the call that he’d made it. We were next.
It was so nerve racking!
GSB: I mean, this is your home Olympics we’re talking about, something you’d been dreaming about for only 18 years or so…
Hannah: …And then the call came…WE DID IT!!!
We celebrated for what seemed like a few seconds and then the real work started. Improving our consistency and rounding the first mark better were musts.
GSB: What was it like coming into the London Olympic Stadium for the Opening Ceremonies with Sir Paul McCartney performing and the whole world watching?
Hannah: Amazing. As I stood in the tunnel, I just tried to take it all in. The cheering was insane. Thinking about watching Opening Ceremonies on TV, it was as though I was living someone else’s life.
But after the ceremonies, it was down to business.
There are ten races in an Olympic sailing competition to see who gets into the medal race. The competition takes five days with rest days in between.
GSB: What was your attitude going in?
Hannah: It was a mixture of confidence and doubt. Confident that we’d win a medal, especially when saw that the other teams were bickering during training. That Saskia had been there before was massive.
We and New Zealand, our main competitors, were the only ones having fun. We did have some doubt that we’d win gold because New Zealand was very strong.
And, as it turned out, we made the medal race two points behind New Zealand and were guaranteed the silver medal.
GSB: So, what happened?!?
Hannah: It was a disaster! There was very little wind, which made it difficult but that was the case for them, too. We had a good start but then we got into a bad stretch and they pulled away. I mean, we were gutted during the race — I was in tears while we were on the water. Maybe this was my one chance at it, especially if Saskia was done.
After the Closing Ceremonies, the disappointment deepened. I mean, now what? I was lost, really.
GSB: I can see how that would be the case, especially now that I’ve watched the HBO documentary, “The Weight of Gold,” about Olympians and depression, narrated by Michael Phelps. It’s one thing if you’re a footballer or an NBA star. Don’t win this year? Get ‘em next year. Olympians only have the stage once every four years. The pressure is unimaginable for us non-athletes. So how did you cope?
Hannah: I’ve not seen the Michael Phelps film, but it’s definitely on my list now!
Things didn’t start to turn around until Saskia decided in 2013 to carry on, that she still had more to give. That made me determined to finish the job at Rio 2016.
This time injuries were our biggest challenge. Saskia had more but I had a back issue that slowed us down.
But we were ready to start our Rio qualifying campaign at Santander in 2014.
And then we had the worst day, we were all over the place.
Hannah: The wind was coming from the land — so it was moving around a lot and unpredictable — which was our weakness. And our communications were out of whack. To me, the directions Saskia were giving weren’t clear and I was being very indecisive. We had 18 months to get it right, working on communications in all sorts of conditions.
The hard work paid off as we were in top form in the test event to go to Rio and did well enough there to earn the spot.
Suffice to say, the stress level was much lower than four years earlier.
GSB: So, tell us about Rio?
Hannah: The expectations were huge this time, both from the media and from us — to me it was gold or bust.
We had been training in Rio for around 180 days in the two years building up to the Games. We went down to Brazil in January, spending six months to learn every nuance of the courses. There were three in Guanabara Bay and three on the ocean.
So, Saskia and I were ready. Again, our competition were the same girls from New Zealand.
But you never know how life will go. I became ill in the run up to our event, spending four days in bed. I only got one practice sail in. This was less than ideal but I started to feel better as the races started.
We didn’t push it the first couple of days, got to third place at the midway point and then I felt 100 percent. And then we attacked after that and were in good shape…until a huge storm hit all of us on the ocean race.
GSB: You’re kidding!
Hannah: It was carnage out there. But we got through and make it back to the bay and into the medal race in first place, 20 points ahead. Basically, we couldn’t lose…unless we didn’t finish.
I was a nervous wreck of course but we made it to the finish and were gold medalists!
GSB: Congratulations! I mean I knew you won before we spoke, but I still was tense listening to you tell the tale!
Hannah: I know! But being on the medal stand as they played “God Save The Queen” was surreal.
As expected, Saskia retired soon after. I thought, ‘OK, I’ve completed what I set out to do. Should I walk away?’
But I was 28 at the time, still in my prime as a sailor and it is hard to retire after winning gold. I took some time, sailed some other boats, got the fire to go for it in Tokyo and began to look for my next partner…and my next passion.
GSB: We’ll get back to the partner in a bit but about that passion…
Hannah: It really was born in Rio. The plastic pollution there, as well as the overall environment, was staggering to me. The combination of poor waste management and a unique topography — with the mountains coming right up to the ocean — doesn’t help. When it rains, it is just a disaster. The amount of rubbish in Guanabara Bay was awful and also so sad.
I mean we’re athletes, we’ll be there for a time and then head home to our comfortable lives. The people who live in the favelas in Rio, that is home. After visiting there and talking to the people, and seeing that there is no real sanitation there, I’m glad I visited. It firmed up in my mind that I needed to be part of a solution, and plastic waste was the place to start.
GSB: What was your next step?
Hannah: I started to research plastic waste. As I mentioned before I had always loved the environment and geography, so this felt natural.
As time went on, I became both excited about doing something about plastic and overwhelmed about the scale of the problem. Linking the environment and waste with sailing was also festering in the back of my mind. That using our platform could help. So, I was thinking…
At around that time, I got a call from one of my competitors for Rio in 2016, Eilidh McIntyre. She was the only one of that group that I would’ve considered. She was the right age at 22 and six feet tall, which is perfect for the crew of a 470! Sailing is in her blood. Competitive. Checked all the boxes.
We competed in some 2017 test events and did well. 2018 was fantastic, including a bronze in the World Champs. We work very well together, now with me in Saskia’s “senior partner” role and Eilidh hungry for gold.
2019 was strong for us too, as we were #1 at the World Championships in Japan at the Olympic venue and came in second in the important Tokyo 2020 test event. In fact, we had made the Olympic team…
GSB: …And then COVID hit. Do you have to qualify again, this time for Tokyo 2021?
Hannah: Nope. We are all set if of course, the Games are held.
GSB: A big IF right now. Now let’s tack back to the environment…Had to put the sailing reference in there.
Hannah: Good job, Lew.
In 2017, as I thought more about the environmental problems, especially what I’d seen in Rio, I decided that reducing single use plastics would be my focus. We sure use a lot of it in sailing, from water bottles to the plastic packing material used when equipment is shipped to us to used wetsuits.
So, I said ‘we’ve need to start a campaign that gets athletes involved with greening.’
Eventually this morphed into what would become the Big Plastic Pledge: Asking athletes — not just sailors — to pledge to do three things to reduce plastic waste. Say no to single use bottles. Order equipment with minimal packaging. Talk about the issue with your fans. We list nine ways to reduce on our site.
We launched in September 2019. The IOC helped with some funding and a press release. Sky Sports and the BBC covered us, as well as other outlets all around the world.
GSB: That is amazing! How has it gone since?
Hannah: Well it’s been a massive learning curve.
It’s been harder than I anticipated to get other athletes involved.
GSB: Why do you think that has been the case?
Hannah: Some didn’t want criticism that might come their way. Some didn’t have enough confidence. Thing is, no one has to be perfect; it’s about doing better.
Anyway, we have gotten the International Rowing Federation to support us with British rower Martin Helseth our rowing ambassador. World Sailing, which has a strong sustainability record in its own right, backs us too. And we’ve gotten 3,000 individuals to take the pledge as well.
But we need to move faster and bigger. So, we are revisiting the campaign as a whole, with the goal of widening our lens beyond the pledge. We think we can work in two to three key project areas within sustainable sport, plastics being one. Sport clothing being another.
GSB: Where does climate change fit in?
Hannah: Of course, sport as we know it won’t be the same if we don’t get act on climate change soon and in a serious way. Protect Our Winters is doing great work in this area. I’ve also become a supporter of EcoAthletes, the organization that you help launch…
GSB: …And we are very lucky to have you…
Hannah: Educating athletes to speak about climate change can have a very big impact so I’m glad to be a part of EcoAthletes and look forward to working with the group.
As for us, we are working on our brand personality and mission and expect to have it fine-tuned by the end of this year.
GSB: I can’t wait to see what Big Plastic Pledge becomes, and am sure, with you at the helm, it will have a big impact.
Photo at top: Hannah Mills (Photo credit: Nick Dempsey)