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British Sailing Team reflects on Olympic successes as stars announce retirement

by Will Carson 14 Dec 2021 04:00 GMT 14 December 2021
Hannah Mills announced as Team GB's female flagbearer ahead of the Tokyo 2020 opening ceremony © Sam Mellish / Team GB

British Sailing Team boss Mark Robinson has heaped praise on a host of sailing stars after they announced their retirement from Olympic campaigning. Tokyo 2020 gold medallists Hannah Mills, Giles Scott and Stuart Bithell are among those calling time on their Olympic careers.

London 2012 silver medallist Luke Patience, three-time Olympian Ali Young, two-timers Charlotte Dobson and Chris Grube and Rio 2016 Team GB athlete Ben Saxton have taken the decision to move on.

It follows a stellar performance from Team GB's sailors at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, at which the team secured the top spot on the sailing medal table for the fifth time in six Games with three golds, a silver and a bronze.

"All good things must come to an end, and as such these incredible athletes have taken the decision to step back from Olympic campaigning," said Robinson, the RYA's Olympic Performance Manager.

"These individuals have made such a huge impact on our sport, their achievements speak for themselves, and they've inspired countless youngsters to follow in their footsteps. I feel very proud to have led a team full of such great athletes, and those retiring will be sorely missed.

"However as a team we are well-prepared. Lots of our Tokyo team are going again, plus there are a whole host of talented sailors who've been waiting patiently in the wings to get their time to shine.

"With Paris 2024 less than three years away the British Sailing Team is full-steam ahead, with the number one goal of defending our title of the world's most successful Olympic sailing team."

Onwards to Paris

Despite the loss of so many big names, the British Sailing Team remains in great shape with Paris 2024 less than three years away.

Gold medal winners Dylan Fletcher (49er) and Eilidh McIntyre (women's 470) will both continue campaigning for the next Olympics with new crews, yet to be decided.

Nacra 17 runners up John Gimson and Anna Burnet are also continuing their bid for gold alongside Emma Wilson, bronze medallist in the women's RS:X, windsurfer Tom Squires and 49erFX crew Saskia Tidey.

A whole host of new faces will also be looking to make their mark in a bid to win selection for Team GB.

Meanwhile Nick Dempsey, Britain's greatest ever Olympic windsurfer with two silvers and a bronze to his name, is back in the British Sailing Team as coach to the men's iQFOiL, the new foiling windsurfer class that will debut in Paris.

Dempsey retired from competition after scooping silver at Rio 2016, and went on to coach Japan's Makoto Tomizawa for the Tokyo 2020 cycle.

"I'm hugely excited to be back with the British Sailing Team," said Dempsey. "This is my dream job, and it's a real honour to lead this men's iQFOiL squad. I truly believe we have all the right ingredients to be the world's best team.

"The individual members are young, talented and busting to learn. I'm really looking forward to seeing what we can do in the run-up to Paris 2024 and beyond."

Hannah Mills

Mills became the most successful female Olympic sailor of all time this summer when she defended her Rio 2016 gold medal alongside Eilidh McIntyre.

The pair were among the favourites for the top spot but faced stiff competition from crews from Japan, France, Poland and Switzerland.

Fifth in the medal race sealed glory in style, with a huge 16 point-gap separating them from the second-placed Polish team.

Victory for Mills rounded off an incredible Olympic career in which she won silver at London 2012 then golds at Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020. Not only does that make her the greatest female Olympic sailor ever but also Wales' most successful female Olympian.

In recognition of their achievements, Mills and McIntyre were voted female World Sailors of the Year last week.

Mills now turns her attention to the SailGP circuit which she joined earlier this year as part of Sir Ben Ainslie's British outfit, as well as continuing her environmental campaigning with her charity the Big Plastic Pledge.

Giles Scott

Scott had his own challenge defending his Olympic title in the Finn, a class which will not feature in the Paris 2024 sailing competition.

Heading into the medal race in the lead with one hand already on gold, his hopes were dealt a huge blow when, fearing he was over the line at the start of the race, he turned round and headed back to start the race again, relegating him to the back of the fleet.

An incredible fightback saw him pick his way through the fleet to fourth, enough to snatch overall victory from race winner Zsombor Berecz of Hungary.

It seals Scott's place in the history books as the final Finn Olympic champion, as the class is being retired for Paris 2024. It also maintained Britain's winning legacy, having taken gold in every Olympics since Sydney 2000 thanks first to Iain Percy and then Sir Ben Ainslie.

Scott's win was even more impressive for the fact that he spent much of the time in between Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 campaigning to win the America's Cup alongside Ainslie, a project he will now return to.

Stuart Bithell

Bithell took gold in the 49er class with Dylan Fletcher, adding to the silver medal he won with Luke Patience in the men's 470 at London 2012.

After missing out on selection for Rio 2016 at the hands of Fletcher and his then team-mate Alain Sign, Bithell and Fletcher teamed up in 2017 and have been a formidable force ever since.

After putting together an impressive series in Tokyo, the pair went into the medal race in second place with just a handful of points separating them from regatta leaders Blair Tuke and Peter Burling.

A thrilling photo finish in the medal race saw them overhaul Germans Erik Heil and Thomas Ploessel to steal the top spot from Tuke and Burling, relegating the Kiwis to the silver medal position. It was the first ever gold medal for Britain in the 49er class.

Luke Patience and Chris Grube

Patience was just 25 when he won a silver medal alongside Stuart Bithell in the men's 470 class at London 2012.

After winning a spot with Team GB at Rio 2016, his campaign was turned upside down when crew Elliot Willis was diagnosed with cancer, and they were deselected.

Chris 'Twiggy' Grube had been part of the British Sailing Team for almost a decade when he got the last-minute call-up to join Patience, with whom he had raced alongside in the mid 2000s.

The pair went on to finish an incredible fifth, and took that partnership into the Tokyo cycle - and all the way to Tokyo 2020 itself.

They enjoyed a strong start to the Olympic regatta, and despite slipping down the leaderboard slightly in the lighter winds through the week, only the Aussies bettered them for the lowest discard. A consistent series had them into the medal race as one of only five boats who could take home an Olympic medal.

Alison Young

With three Olympics under her belt, Young is Britain's greatest ever ILCA 6 (formerly Laser Radial) sailor.

Young picked up the baton from Penny Clark, winning a call-up to Team GB for London 2012. She was the first Brit to win a world championship in the class in 2016, and was among the favourites for an Olympic medal. However she was dealt a blow when she broke her ankle just eight weeks before the Games.

An eighth in Rio fired her up for a tilt at Tokyo, where she finished 10th after a tricky week. Young now plans on using her knowledge and experience to coach young athletes to success.

Charlotte Dobson

After narrowly missing out on Olympic selection for two cycles running in the ILCA 6 (formerly the Laser Radial) Dobson switched to the 49erFX skiff when it was introduced in 2014, teaming up with Sophie Ainsworth. The pair won their spot with Team GB for Rio 2016, finishing ninth.

Dobson then joined forces with Saskia Tidey and the duo quickly established themselves as a powerhouse of the 49erFX fleet, backed up by string of podium results silvers at the Olympic test event and the 2020 world championships.

Dobson and Tidey led the Tokyo 2020 regatta in the windy early stages before being overhauled later on as the breeze turned light, eventually finishing sixth. Dobson, who married Dylan Fletcher a few weeks after returning from Tokyo, is now looking to work in banking.

Ben Saxton

After switching from the 470 class to the Nacra 17, multihull expert Saxton was picked for Team GB at the Rio 2016 Olympics alongside crew Nicola Groves.

The pair went on to finish ninth, a result that frustrated Saxton. He made amends the following year with victory at the 2017 world championships with Katie Dabson.

After teaming up with Nicola Boniface, Saxton went on to score numerous podium finishes including winning the 2019 European championships and placing third at Ready Steady Tokyo, the test event for Tokyo 2020.

Saxton stepped away from Olympic sailing after losing out on Olympic selection to Tokyo 2020 silver medallists John Gimson and Anna Burnet, and recently started a job working for North Sails.

Follow the British Sailing Team's progress towards Paris 2024 at

What they say - Hannah Mills, 34, Cardiff, Wales

On retirement:

"Sadly my Olympic campaigning is coming to an end - the 470 is going mixed for Paris 2024 and for me, in terms of my career, this is the perfect time to step away and explore other options. I'll be working on my sustainability campaign which I'm really passionate about while exploring some exciting opportunities in women's sailing. It was a difficult decision and yet also an easy one. What made it hard was just how incredible the Olympic Games is - it's like nothing else on Earth. As an athlete who's dreamed of going to the Games my whole life it's something that is quite difficult to walk away from. But in terms of where I'm at in life and what I want to do next it was a bit easier."

On the Tokyo 2020 cycle:

"It was a mad cycle, that's for sure. Things came at us that no-one could ever have imagined. The delay to a Games is something you never think will happen. You have this deadline of when the Games is and nothing will move that. Then something so much bigger than the Olympics came along and it did move that. I definitely look back and feel privileged to have had that extra year. At points when it was tough and emotional and mentally challenging and those things that go hand in hand with being an athlete striving towards a huge goal, I remember thinking to myself that actually none of it mattered because we were so lucky to still be competing and travelling and working towards this incredible goal while a lot of other people were not so fortunate."

On becoming the greatest ever female Olympic sailor:

"It's a strange one - you dream of winning an Olympic gold medal but I certainly never dreamed of winning multiple medals and becoming the most successful female Olympic sailor. It's surreal when you add up the 15 years or so of Olympic campaigning and it leads to that accolade. It's surreal but amazing. Records are there to be broken though, and that's what inspires other female athletes to push harder. It will be exciting to see what comes next."

On inspiring youngsters:

"To anyone who's thinking of having a go at sailing I'd say just have a go. It changed my life, and whether you want to go to the Olympics, sail at your club or just with your family, sailing is the most amazing sport. To be outside, on the water, experiencing the elements, is like nothing else. It's given me skills that I'll take through my whole life."

Fondest memories of the Games:

"There are so many. London will always be the most insane experience. Walking into the opening ceremony as part of Team GB at a home Olympics was just bonkers. I don't think anything will compete with that. The noise walking into the stadium, people banging their feet, it was unbelievable to be a part of. Winning my first gold medal with Saskia Clark in Rio was a lifelong dream for both of us. It was so special to come back from silver in London and get the gold.

"With Tokyo I just look back on the British Sailing Team - we had the best team imaginable; every single person was amazing to be around and brought their best versions of themselves. I don't think I've experienced a team quite like that one and that's my strongest memory of those Games."

On the future:

"I've got lots of plans in the sustainability world, trying to inspire and empower other athletes to use their platform to speak up about different challenges. We're already seeing the positive impact it can have. In terms of sailing, I'm racing with the SailGP GBR team as a female athlete and will be looking to develop female pathways into high performance professional sailing.

"There's also a new women's competition in the America's Cup. There's so much going on in the world of professional sailing, it's a pretty amazing time to a female in sailing right now."

What they say - Giles Scott, 34, Huntingdon, Cambridgeshire

On retirement:

"I'm done, speaking simply. I've been in Olympic classes sailing now for nearly 14 years, done two Olympic Games, had a really good innings and now it's time for me to move on to other things. It actually feels ok [to be retiring]. If I'm brutally honest it feels just fine. I've been doing it for so long and have put so much into it, and I'm lucky to have been successful, and it's time to do other things. I've absolutely loved my Olympic sailing but I feel like it's been a chapter in a bigger book. I'm sad to be leaving but for sure it's time to go."

Reflecting on the past couple of years:

"In honest I'm still processing it all. The last couple of years were probably the busiest of my life and I took on an awful lot with the America's Cup while trying to defend my Olympic title. Somehow I managed to keep that gold medal. In honesty I'm not sure how, but I got there just about! I've enjoyed my time off, doing some Moth sailing and sailing some bigger boats. I'm getting back with INEOS and the America's Cup. I've still got plenty going on but I am still slowly digesting what I've accomplished, not just at the last Olympics but over the past ten years of Olympic sailing."

On the Tokyo 2020 medal race:

"I haven't watched it back, and I don't want to. I don't think I ever will! I'd have rather have won gold in the style I did four years previously, it was way less stressful. The Tokyo medal race was very dramatic and certainly made a five-knot Finn race pretty exciting, which isn't that easy to do. In the build-up to the medal race I'd put together a really solid week, it just so happens the two guys on my tail had also done a pretty good job as well and I still had a bit to do in the medal race. It didn't go perfectly to plan but I just about got there."

On being part of such a successful team in Tokyo:

"It was great. The vibe and the atmosphere out there among the sailors and support staff was really quite powerful, and for sure that bred performance. It really did feel like we were in it together, living in a camp environment, and it just so happened that each day we needed to leave the accommodation to go race in the Olympic Games. It was a really cool month, and certainly one I will hold close to my heart."

On fondest memories of Olympic career:

"I've had so many amazing times. Those of us that get to travel the world doing a sport like sailing are incredibly fortunate. Even without success, being part of the Olympic circuit is an amazing thing to do. For me to be able to walk away having had success is very special. The results I've had are one thing, but the people I've met and friends I've made along the way have been amazing as well."

On inspiring young sailors:

"I always say that you've got to enjoy what you do. My success has come from doing something that I love to do, and that was certainly the case when I was a kid. My message to young sailors would be to enjoy the sport, don't get bogged down in results and if you love it you'll become good at it."

On life after the Olympics:

"The main focus is the America's Cup. I've signed back up with INEOS and over the next year things will really start to ramp up. We're beginning to build the team and put schedules in place. It's early stages at the moment but it will start to get big quite quickly. In the meantime I'm learning to sail again, this time in a Moth which is good fun. It's been a long time since I've sailed in Weymouth harbour in November with a big grin on my face!"

What they say - Stuart Bithell, 35, Rochdale, Greater Manchester

On retirement:

"I guess I've hung my boots up for now. I've done three cycles and it's time to move on to other areas of the sport. It's nice to stop here at the top - it would take a lot of hard work to regroup and go again for Paris. I've done the Olympic thing now and I want to move my career on to other areas of the sport. It feels like the right time. And of course I'm getting old!"

On winning gold at Tokyo 2020:

"It feels pretty good. It's been a long time coming and there's been a lot of hard work that's gone into it. A while back I knew this was going to be my last one and everything went into this campaign. It's so cool coming away with a gold medal - I feel on top of the world."

On a potential comeback:

"Not at the minute. There's no part of me that is looking at Paris. That said we're all athletes and we've seen it many times where athletes retire and then come back. Currently there's no plan to do that, but who knows."

On his crew Dylan Fletcher:

"I think Dylan is going on to do another cycle. We've sailed together for the past five years and it'll be weird to not do another campaign with him, but we still sail together loads. We just did an event out in Italy and I'm sure we will do more, it just won't be in an Olympic class."

On memories of the Olympics:

"I think my best memories of my career are of the Olympic Games themselves, it's such a pinnacle that you work so hard to get to and then when you're there, because all the hard work has been done you can enjoy the moment. Certainly winning silver with Luke Patience in London at a home Olympics was incredible. I didn't qualify for Rio 2016 and decided to put everything on the line one more time and that came off good with Tokyo. Actually being at Tokyo and performing to our best was just perfect."

On future plans:

"I'm looking at getting into other areas of the sport. There's plenty on with professional sailing, the America's Cup, SailGP and lots of other professional circuits around the world. I'm aiming for the big circuits and we'll see how we go."

On inspiring the next generation:

"I come from a background where you wouldn't expect to be on the top of an Olympic podium. I grew up sailing on a tiny lake in the north of England, and my message to kids is that you can do whatever you want if you put your heart and a bit of time into it. Nothing is impossible."

What they say - Luke Patience, 35, Rhu, Scotland

On retirement:

"It's the end of a long, wonderful 17-year journey. It's hard to definitively say it, but for me this is the end of my Olympic athlete career. After many long weeks thinking about it and talking to many different people I feel like I've made peace with that decision and that it's the right one for me now. It's been so hard to come to the decision because there's so much passion for what I do.

"We embark on this madness not as a job but to try to represent yourself and your country at the highest level and come home as Olympic champions. Not only is that a really honourable thing to do with your life, it's incredibly addictive. Success is a wee drug and so to walk away from a lifelong journey feels a bit weird. It won't stop overnight and my heart still longs to continue, but my head is winning the battle."

On his Olympics career:

"Three Olympics and an Olympic silver medal means so much to me. I dreamed about winning an Olympic medal as a wee boy and I did it. But in the same breath I can think back to a time when I never thought I'd go this far. Although I won a silver medal in some regards it's not enough and I'd like to say I was Olympic champion three times, and I'm not. However time is a wonderful healer and the further I get from it all I do look back and go 'wow'. What an honour and achievement to have represented my country at the highest level for such a long time. I am very proud but I think I'll be more proud in a year's time and even more proud in ten years' time. I think it will take a bit of distance from the sport to really look back on what I achieved."

On representing Scotland:

"I'm very proud to be British and Scottish, but I like the identity of being from a wee small nation as well. It means a lot to represent Scotland. We're not a massive country with five million people and the Scottish athletes who come out of the woodwork are a really small bunch of people. I take a lot of pride in being part of that group. There must be something in the water on the west coast of Scotland because we've produced some phenomenally good sailors today and in years gone by. I feel really attached to my Scottish heritage. My dad has been great at showing me our family's lineage and where our ancestors came from. They were all fishermen and lifeboatmen and things like that. I'm just happy I could carry on that journey on the sea."

Fondest memories of the Games:

"I could answer that one for hours. London 2012 was incredible. To be out racing as a 25-year-old with my best mate and all the crowds on the shore, folks screaming, and everything those Games brought, I can't see that anything in my life will ever feel like that felt. That's above and beyond my fondest memory. It was so unique. The most emotional bit was walking out into the opening ceremony to 80,000 people screaming Team GB, chanting in the stadium. The confetti, the music, walking out behind Chris Hoy waving the flag... I just remember looking at Stuart [Bithell], Hannah [Mills] and Saskia [Clark] and saying "we're here, we're Olympians". We'd been dreaming about it for so long. That memory is etched in me."

On future plans:

"What's next will probably change every month! In a nice way, I don't really know. I'm giving my mind and body a bit of time to wind down. I'm excited about many things, about trying new things and being in different worlds. I'd love to lead a team in the Ocean Race when the time's right, I'd like to start a whiskey brand and do bits like that. I'm looking forward to spending a bit more time with family and enjoy the things in life that I've had to put on the sidelines for a very long time. I'm a sailor in my heart and I doubt I'll ever be that far from the British Sailing Team in some shape or form."

On inspiring the next generation:

"If I was to say anything to kids who've been inspired by Tokyo it would be to hold tight to that inspiration. Nobody on Team GB is from some immensely privileged background where it was all laid out on a plate for them. The vast majority of us Olympians were kids who watched the Olympics and were inspired by them. I was curious about what it would feel like to represent my country and I became obsessed with finding out. That's all I've been for 25 years: curious. If you think it's out of reach it isn't. Hold onto that inspiration and just keep chipping away."

What they say - Alison Young, 34, Bewdley, Worcestershire

"My latest news from the Olympic world is that I've retired, and now I'm figuring out what life is. I actually decided to retire while I was in Tokyo. I was watching Emma Wilson win her bronze medal in the RS:X and I realised that it wasn't something I wanted or needed anymore. It was quite an easy decision in the end. When I reflect back on my time with the British Sailing Team I just feel really fortunate to have had the chance to work with the teams of people that I have, people who are world class at what they do and who are more importantly just fantastic individuals. For that I'm very grateful.

"I'm now stepping out into the rest of the world and seeing what that's like. My fondest memories from the Games centre around the spirit and energy the sailing team has, especially out in Tokyo. I finished tenth in Tokyo and I just felt really content with my performance. It was a really nice place to end on. What's next? Well, with my sailing it's always been about trying to get the best out of myself and so I'm now trying to do that in a different domain. I'm exploring coaching to see if I can help others get the best out of themselves."

What they say - Charlotte Dobson, 35, Rhu, Scotland

On retirement:

"The latest news for me is that I'm going to hang up my sailing boots and trapeze harness and say goodbye to the Olympic world. It's been an amazing period of time, and now I'm going on to work out what the next thing is. It was a pretty easy decision to be honest. I genuinely felt in the couple of years before Tokyo that Saskia [Tidey] and I had given ourselves the best chance of winning a medal in Tokyo. We'd worked with some incredible coaches and support staff, and had some amazing sailors in our training groups.

"When you're proud of the campaign you put together you have to accept the result at the end. We gave it a really good crack but it wasn't enough at the end. I think you have to know when it's time to say that we did our best but it wasn't really good enough."

On representing Scotland and Great Britain:

"It's a huge honour to wear the Team GB top - it's something I've thought about since I was tiny. The first time I got to pull it on in Rio was quite a shock. I wasn't expecting it to hit home quite so much with Tokyo, but it totally did. Representing your Queen, country and everyone who sails is a huge honour and something I'll be really proud of for the rest of my life."

Fondest memories of the Games:

"It's probably more of feeling than a memory. Regardless of the result not turning out the way we wanted, I wholeheartedly feel hugely proud to be part of that Tokyo team. We were surrounded by excellent people doing pretty incredible things. The atmosphere was one of elevating yourself. It was a huge honour to see some of the sailing greats that we had do their thing, and try to emulate that."

On future plans:

"I'm dipping my toes into the real world slowly, and I'm hopefully going to find a job in banking. I'm definitely not going very far from Portland, I love it here. Sailing has brought me all the way from the west coast of Scotland to this little island and I love it. I won't be completely disappearing."

Advice for the next generation:

"I'd say just stay in love with our sport. It's the most incredible sport, and so wide-ranging. You can sail fast boats, slow boats, complicated boats, simple boats, with people, on your own... Never lose the love for the sport. Do as much sailing across a variety of boats. And if you decide you want to go to the Olympics it's totally possible. Anything is possible when you set a goal, put your mind to it and crack on."

What they say - Ben Saxton, 31, Cambridge

"Thanks to the team who've supported me to compete at the Olympics and to win a few major championships. Thanks in particular to the unsung heroes working hard in the background. I'm really excited about the future, but I will remember my time with the British team fondly."

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