Fulfilling the Olympic dream has pushed Eilidh McIntyre in ways she could never have imagined.
The Team GB sailor will be making her Olympic debut in Tokyo, but it’s been a long and difficult road to get to this point.
Her current 470 sailing class teammate Hannah Mills has walked this path to glory before. At Rio 2016 she won gold along with her then-teammate Saskia Clark.
McIntyre was forced to watch on during the Rio Olympics. She was devastated and heartbroken after missing out on qualification.
It’s something that would have a lasting impact on the 25-year-old, and she still carries that raw emotion in her voice when she speaks about it.
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“I was broken, that’s the only way I can describe it,” she said.
“I ended up going to see a counsellor for a bit and I had quite a lot of issues I had to talk through off the back of that campaign.
“It had been really brutal, and I hadn’t necessarily enjoyed it that much.
“Given this was everything I wanted to do, I was doing it at that point purely just to get through and get to a point where I was going to love it.
“I was in a really dark place actually.
“But the first thing I thought, I found out I hadn’t been selected for the Olympics by seeing Hannah and Saskia on TV being selected.
“I don’t think you can ever describe how that feels.
“I knew it was coming, I knew the selection process, I knew they’d won it.
“But nothing prepares you for watching them in their kit being selected for the Games when you can’t go.”
“Next time it’s me”
McIntyre has grown up with the Olympics all around her as her dad, Mike, won gold at Seoul 1988 in the Star class.
That gold medal hung outside her bedroom and very quickly it became a dream of hers to qualify, compete and win gold.
After the devastation of Rio, the sailor tried to quickly turn that gutting experience on its head.
Now it fuels her.
“Actually, my first thought was ‘next time it’s me’,” she said.
“’This has to me next time, I’m not doing this again’.
“That was my driver throughout this whole campaign because I was thinking ‘I can’t do that again’.
“It’s a big motivator for me to watch that.
“To then be a part of their campaign and help them [Hannah and Saskia] into Rio was really powerful for me and I learnt a lot from them.
“They’re really lovely people and it actually is a lot easier to watch them win gold. At least you know the right person went.
“They did it. They deserved to go and that really helps.”
Even now, with both McIntyre and Mills now crowned as 2019 World Champions, those negative feelings still drive the athlete in her performances.
“I’m quite a negatively-driven person,” she explained.
“I thrive off of those feelings of remembering how crap it is to lose. That’s what really drives me on race day.
“For me, certainly at the Worlds, I’d had a terrible day the day before and hadn’t sailed very well.
“I was so angry and so annoyed at myself. I was so desperate to prove that I could do it, that really spurred me on.
“For me bringing on those thoughts like ‘I’m not going to do it again, I’m putting everything into this’ that’s what does it for me.
“So, it does haunt me but in quite a constructive way.”
“It was a bit of a Bond moment to be honest”
McIntyre and Mills go into the Tokyo Games as one of the favourites for that gold medal in the 470 class.
Understandably their 2019 World Championship win plays a part in that, but there’s also the small fact that Mills has quite the reputation for winning.
As well as her gold medal in Rio she also picked up silver at London 2012 with Saskia Clark.
But when Clark decided to retire after the Rio Olympics, a vacancy opened up. McIntyre knew she wanted to be her next partner.
“I rung her a week after I stopped sailing with my partner and I kind of begged her to sail with me,” she said.
“Convincing the Olympic gold medallist that you’re the one she should go to sail with and go to the Olympics with is a hard thing to do.
“You have to back yourself quite a lot.
“I basically told her I was nervous within the first five seconds of talking to her and she was like ‘I’ve been expecting your call’.
“It was a bit of a Bond moment to be honest.”
After that initial phone call, McIntyre was left pondering for around four months as Mills mulled over whether she actually wanted to go to Tokyo or not.
In the meantime, the 25-year-old hit the gym whenever she could and sailed with anyone who was available.
In time Mills decided she would be trying for another Olympics and the pair partnered up.
Things slowly clicked into place and the two have enjoyed plenty of success since, including a nomination for Team of the Year in the 2019 Sunday Times Sportswomen of the Year Awards.
“We spend more time together than I do with any other human being,” McIntyre added.
“We stay together when we’re away, we sail together and sometimes we’re on the water for eight hours at a time together in a tiny little boat.
“All we have is each other to chat to. You have to get on.
“You have to be friends and you have to be able to have a laugh together.
“You also have to have that respect, and that mutual compassion, and almost a little bit of love that you can have those really hard discussions but know afterwards it’s nothing.
“You’re just trying to help each other get better and that’s all it is.”
“If we don’t win gold then I’m the one that’s let the side down”
If the pressure of being among the favourites for Olympic victory wasn’t enough there would be another piece of history attached if the pair succeed.
A gold would make Mills the world’s most successful female sailor.
“We try not to talk about that,” McIntyre said.
“I’m sort of joking. We try not to dwell on those things that Han is a reigning champion.
“That’s obviously added pressure for her but at the end of the day it’s another Olympics and another event we need to try and go and win.
“That’s the way we need to treat it.
“I think pressure is whatever you put on yourself.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’m a great believer that a little bit of pressure – that little buzz, that little bit of nerves – that’s what we thrive for.
“That’s the thing that is going to spur us on to give our best performance and we need that.
“But you can’t dwell on it too much otherwise it’s easy for me to feel like I’m going to be the difference and I’m going to be the one.
“But if we don’t win gold then I’m the one that’s let the side down.
“But it’s not – we’re a team and we have built this together. In a way I think I’ve been preparing for that my entire life.
“I’ve always been surrounded by people better than me and I’ve always been the underdog or the least experienced one in the team.
“I guess I’ve always been in the shadow a little bit.
“For me it’s quite natural and something I’m used to and it’s something I don’t take too much pressure from anymore because I’ve always grown up like that.
“I like proving people wrong, I like proving that I can do it – and that I’ve got it – and that I will be the best.”
“They can think what they like”
There is also a sense from McIntyre that now is her time where she should be recognised in her own right.
Frustratingly that hasn’t always been the case since she partnered up with Mills.
“There have been moments for sure,” she explained.
“There have been moments in this cycle where Han and I have been winning a regatta and a press release has gone out calling me Saskia Clark.
“I’ve just thought ‘come on’. Sas has been retired for two years.
“Don’t get me wrong she’s phenomenal but I’m here now and I’m not Sas.
“I’m different to Sas – we don’t have the same qualities; we’ve got different qualities – and I’m not trying to be her.
“For sure there’s been moments where I’ve been annoyed and frustrated, why can’t people know me and respect me?
“But at the same point I don’t do this for anything other than I want to win an Olympic gold medal.
“So, they can think what they like. They can call me Sas.
“I know what I’m doing, I know where I’m trying to go and who I want to be. I just have to live by that.”
Words: Alasdair Hooper
A special thank you to The Mintridge Foundation for helping us secure this interview
Image credits: With thanks to Nick Dempsey
All music in this episode is courtesy of Otis McDonald.