I fell in love with the sport of sailing at a young age on a family holiday in Cornwall, England. On returning home, I desperately wanted to continue and convinced my parents to sign me up for lessons.
In 1996, Ben Ainslie had just returned home from the Atlanta Olympic Games with his silver medal [in the Laser class]. He came to my local sailing club to give a talk. This was a game-changing moment for me: the first time I realised sailing could lead me to the Olympics. After that, it was all about making my dream of sailing in the Olympic Games a reality.
The dream came true at the 2012 Olympic Games in the 470 Women’s Class with my sailing partner Saskia Clark when we took home a silver medal. I was fortunate enough to keep sailing with Saskia in the 470 at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, where we achieved our dream of gold.
But while my pathway into the sport may seem quite straightforward when described this way, the tough reality is that for myself and many young women looking to break through, there were – and still are – many barriers to face. At the top of the sport in particular, it is no secret that there is currently an experience gap among women.
Our gender-balanced Sail GP Inspire Programme promotes diversity and inclusion by engaging youth between nine and 23 years old
Since joining the Great Britain SailGP Team, I have loved racing within the championship, particularly because of what it stands for through its pioneering Impact League. This ‘second podium for the planet’ tracks the positive actions that teams make to reduce their overall carbon footprint and helps accelerate inclusivity in sailing. I strongly believe that sport has a huge role to play in inspiring the next generation to be the best that they can be.
My role onboard the F50 is currently focused on giving input to the helm on strategy, tactics and communications. This is a key role on board the boat, and a huge learning curve in understanding how the boat flies. Off the water, I’m responsible for helping advise SailGP’s Women’s Pathway Programme (WPP) – another area I’m hugely passionate about.
SailGP introduced the WPP at the start of season two [2021-2022] as part of its better sport strategy to promote inclusion, inspire change and provide opportunities across all levels of the sport. It’s just the beginning for the programme, and SailGP has big ambitions to make the league inclusive for everyone.
This season is bigger than ever before, with 10 national teams competing across 11 events, so fans around the world can expect to see more female athletes taking to the racecourse and inspiring the next generation. And these additional events in more cities means that the sport also has the opportunity to positively impact local communities and grassroots levels, too.
Our gender-balanced Sail GP Inspire Programme promotes diversity and inclusion by engaging youth between nine and 23 years old with a wide variety of age-appropriate learning modules, career opportunities, and sail racing experiences. We aim to leave a positive impact at each event location by minimising barriers to entry for young people from all backgrounds aspiring to delve further into the sport.
It’s easy for girls growing up to believe that ‘I’m not good enough’, ‘this isn’t for me’, or ‘there is someone else better suited’. We need to change that narrative. The more young girls see more women as role models in different areas of life from different walks of life, the more they will start to believe. My biggest advice to all young people – girls and boys, is to grab any opportunity that comes your way, even if you think it might not be for you. You will learn so much, and you never know what might come of it.
About the author
Hannah Mills OBE, the most successful female sailor in Olympic history, has two gold and one silver medal from three consecutive Games. Now with the Great Britain SailGP Team as a strategist, racing alongside Sir Ben Ainslie, she also founded Big Plastic Pledge and is SailGP’s global purpose ambassador.