Eilidh McIntyre: 'I'll be nervous about the Olympics going ahead until I'm at the start line'

Eilidh McIntyre offers profuse apologies that are completely unnecessary. A gentle question about her likely emotions this week, when she would have expected to be part of an Olympic opening ceremony, has triggered tears. The British sailor, partner of Hannah Mills in the 470 class, has seen a lifetime’s dream delayed 12 months by the coronavirus pandemic.

“I will feel sad,” says McIntyre. Her demeanour embodies a gross understatement. “A couple of weeks back we should have been having our kit-out day before flying out to Japan for our last regatta before the Games. There would have been a big send off … and I was pretty sad that week.

“I have been in the team since I was 15, so I’ve seen two Olympics go by. You see the buildup, the fun, the excitement. To have been so looking forward to that and have it taken away is hard. It’s not what I expected to happen this year. Next year will be unbelievable, phenomenal, if we get there. It will be this amazing celebration and a sporting event that will go down in history.”

The “if” caveat is the consequence of natural caution. “I don’t necessarily think that will change until I am there,” she says. “Normally you are selected for an Olympics and you know, barring injury, you are going. It’s all in your control that you do everything right and you are there.

“To have such an external factor come into play shows nothing is a guarantee. I don’t think I’ll be happy until I’m sitting on the start line. There won’t be a moment when I’m not nervous about the Games going ahead.”

McIntyre was competing in Mallorca when Covid-19 became a source of disruption. Within a month, the status of the Olympics was a live topic. McIntyre and Mills were strongly fancied for gold. “It was gut-wrenching to think about it,” she says.

“I had so many people messaging and asking about the Games. I didn’t know, I was only finding out via the news. I had to ask people to stop contacting me because I was just about holding it together. Postponement was a huge relief but it’s also another year when I was so ready for this. But along with that comes so many opportunities to get better and be even more prepared.”

Eilidh McIntyre (right) and Hannah Mills
McIntyre (right) with her sailing partner, Hannah Mills. Photograph: Musto

Tokyo should be career-defining for McIntyre in so many ways. Her partnership with Mills, who could become the most successful female sailor in Olympic history, has already borne fruit but now awaits its biggest test.

“I felt a lot of pressure when we teamed up,” McIntyre says. “When we won our first major regatta, then the world championships last year, it was such a relief, I felt like I had earned my worth. It’s really hard sailing with someone who is so successful and celebrated but I feel my entire life has prepared me for this. Everyone expected me to follow in my father’s footsteps.”

Mike McIntyre won sailing gold for Britain at the 1988 Seoul Games. If he has been nothing other than a constant source of support to his daughter, others have preconceptions. “He always just wanted me to enjoy it,” says McIntyre. “It was me who pressed so hard to be where I am. My parents are the people who have sat me down the most and asked if I want to put myself through it all. They’ve never pushed me, any pressure I ever felt was from myself and external parties who had these expectations. I got over that because I wanted it more than anybody could possibly want it for me.”

A gender equality drive means sailing will change in 2024 to the point where fleets are mixed. If 2020 had been cancelled rather than postponed, McIntyre would have been thrown into a horrible state of flux. “The difference between absolute heartbreak and the ability to carry on,” says McIntyre of delay versus cancellation. “I have no idea who I’d sail with. It’s a leveller where potentially my skills and my advantage in a women-only fleet has been levelled out, sailing against boys. I don’t have the confidence I’d be good enough to go and win gold next time. I’d be in an unknown four-year cycle, in a physical sense rather than ability.”

Eilidh McIntyre working out at home
McIntyre working out at home in Portsmouth during lockdown. Photograph: Peter Cziborra/Reuters

With the help of British Sailing, a makeshift gym moved into her dining room during lockdown. “I was beginning to feel a sensation of panic over not being in the water and what that feeling is for me,” McIntyre says. “It’s very easy to progress fitness goals but how could I progress on-water ones?”

Now, McIntyre and her teammates are “pretty much up to speed” with their working week. For all her negative emotions as the original Olympic start date comes and goes, there is acceptance of a bigger picture. Not least after her partner, Jonny Forer, recently returned from an eight-month expedition with the Royal Navy to propose.

“They 100% made the right decision to postpone,” she says. “In our own bubbles of our own lives, we think what we are doing is the most important thing in the world. You begin to realise protecting my family, friends, people across different continents I’ve never met is important. Life has a higher purpose than what we maybe consider inside that bubble. I’ve been given freedom to get out of that bubble, to have a fresh perspective.”

Eilidh McIntyre is part of #TeamMusto. Find out more at www.musto.com

source: theguardian.com