Hannah Stodel, four-time Paralympian and Sonar sailor with the British Sailing Team spoke to us about her career to date, overcoming hurdles, and how nothing can hold her and her team down. Interview: Megan Harris
Sailing is both a physically a mentally demanding sport, what got you into it?
My family is pretty nautical. I've been in a boat since I could walk! Both my parents raced competitively. My father was in the 505 class, reaching world level, and my mother just narrowly missed out selection to the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Korea. My parents never really saw me as disabled. If anything, it drove them to push me harder. From day one it was 'get in the boat and shut up, do your job, keep your head down'. Luckily for them I caught the bug!
How did you adapt to sailing having been born without your right forearm and hand?
I never really had to adapt. I guess being born without my arm is somewhat of an advantage over people that lose one later in life. I just got on with things as best I could. I've tried numerous prosthetics, but they all made me feel lopsided as I'm so used to being as I am.
You were the first female Paralympic sailor for Great Britain, how did you find that?
Athens 2004 was a pretty overwhelming experience, both on and off the water. No one had really warned us about the circus that is the Olympic and Paralympic games, and how it's not just another regatta. Being the first woman was pretty special though, especially in my fleet with so few girls competing!
What have been the toughest challenges so far?
Like anything really, it has its ups and downs. It's been one hell of a journey so far. I guess I never pictured some of the challenges we've faced in my plan! One of the toughest points for me was deciding to carry on after Beijing, where the Sonar team placed sixth. That was a tough call to make – for all of us. We'd had such a hard regatta and to want to put yourself through another four years is generally viewed as crazy. Then of course there was the heartbreak at London 2012. Having your medal taken away because of one person's alleged actions and some incompetence in the decision-making. I remember it all like it was yesterday as well. It has been a tough one to fight through because there's been so many rumours, especially from other countries, but at the end of the day the team know what really happened behind closed doors and I know in my mind that we won that medal on the water where it really matters. It's only fuelled my fire to take the gold in Rio.
Sailing has been cut from the Paralympic programme for Tokyo 2020. Has this had an impact on the team?
It's hugely frustrating. Sailing is pretty much the only sport that is totally inclusive. You wouldn't see a quadriplegic racing against a single arm amputee in swimming, but we get that on the water with sailing, and with equal footing. There's no other sport like it. For us, it's not really changed anything, as we have a single-minded goal to win gold in Rio. That of course doesn't mean that we won't continue to fight to have sailing reinstated. The change.org petition has well over 16000 signatures now, and the Facebook page for 'Reinstate Sailing' is gaining numbers by the day.
Assuming that the decision on Tokyo 2020 stands, where do you see yourself going in the next ten years?
I guess my plans will stay the same, and that's to continue coaching, and start working to my own goal of racing single-handed, quite literally in my case, around the world.
Looking back over your sailing career, what has been your proudest moment?
There have been so many really great moments, but weirdly enough, they're not when you're standing on top of the podium, although don't get me wrong, that is amazing! I guess for me, lighting the cauldron at the London 2012 Games was a pretty special moment, made even better by being able to share it with my family who were on the beach. Then I guess my other moment was when we all sat around the table as a team and decided to keep fighting for another cycle to win that medal at Rio 2016. That to me was a defining moment. The point when you know your team mates and your coach are going to see it through, and now all we can do is keep fighting all the way to race 11 in Rio, then we'll know.
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