Eilidh McIntyre: How I had to overcome my demons to chase sailing gold at Tokyo 2020

Olympic Channel’s ‘Chasing Tokyo’, which premieres on 28 July, followed McIntyre and other Team GB sailing teammates as they prepared for the Tokyo 2020 Games during the pandemic. "It's going to be amazing to see athletes at their most vulnerable. And I hope it dispels this myth of we live perfect lives because we don't," she told Olympics.com ahead of the launch.

By Evelyn Watta
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Eilidh McIntyre harboured Olympic dreams since she was about seven years old.

At the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in 2021, she followed in the footsteps of her father Michael by becoming an Olympic sailing champion.

McIntyre and Great Britain teammate Hannah Mills dominated the regatta to comfortably win gold in the women’s 470 class, 33 years after her father’s golden victory in the Star class at Seoul 1988.

“I felt so much pressure being in my dad's shadow… I felt that my whole life,” McIntyre told Olympics.com in an exclusive interview.

“To win my own, to finally know that I'm good enough at it, was just huge for me personally that I was exactly the athlete I wanted to be.”

Her gold medal helped Team GB top the sailing competition in Tokyo with three titles and become the most successful Olympic team in the sport with 64 medals overall.

But after her first memorable Olympic debut the Olympics, where she and Mills became the last all-female crew to win the 470, the 27-year-old feared for her career.

At Paris 2024 her boat class will be mixed gender and she worried about her future.

“I was convinced I was going to be out of a job. I didn't think I was going to be able to be strong enough in my role in the boat,” she confessed.

She later welcomed the new challenge and is now working on partnering with Martin Wrigley for the next Games.

Her incredible journey to the Olympics in Japan, alongside her British Sailing teammates, inspired a feature-length documentary ‘Chasing Tokyo’ that gives a behind-the-scenes look and also puts the sport in focus.

McIntyre hopes that the documentary will help change misconceptions about sailing and also give people an understanding of the pressures they face as athletes.

'Chasing Tokyo' premieres on Olympic Channel on Thursday 28 July and is available to watch via Olympics.com for free.

In the documentary the British sailor describes the emotions of chasing Olympic gold and overcoming her “struggles and demons”.

Read on for the full Q&A with Eilidh McIntyre. The interview has been edited for clarity purposes.

Eilidh McIntyre hopes 'Chasing Tokyo' film can showcase Team GB sailing

Olympics.com: What does it mean for you to be part of a documentary that followed your team ahead of your debut Olympics at Tokyo 2020 in 2021?

Eilidh McIntyre: I'm excited for people to see inside sailing and to see us as characters and the athletes we are. I think sailing's seen as sort of stuck in the past in some ways and I'm hoping this will showcase how cool our sport is, how physical, how interesting and technical it is. Hopefully get people excited about it.

It was so cool that they followed me to win my gold. I think to watch back and relive all those moments is going to feel very surreal. And there are a lot of tough moments that they were there for and they witnessed. It's going to be weird looking back and I think sometimes you look back with rose-tinted glasses and it could be a bit of: "Oh yeah, it was horrible!"

O.C: What impact or legacy do you hope this documentary can leave behind?

EM: For Team GB, sailing is one of our most prestigious and legacy sports and I hope it can showcase the cool things we've done to keep that legacy going. It's hard to keep the legacy going and to live up to it Olympics after Olympics, and we certainly live in that shadow as athletes. That's what we aim to do at every Games. I'm hoping that it will be cool from a Team GB perspective. For the Olympics, I think sailing is seen as outside of sport at the Games, and I hope it showcases how cool it is and how interesting it is and how these people from many different backgrounds can get involved and anyone can do it.

O.C: Sailing is sometimes perceived as an elite sport. Do you see the documentary helping to break down this misconception?

EM: Yeah, I hope it can show that Sailing at a grassroots level can be for anyone, anyone can do it. As all elite sport, no matter what sport it is, you need the backing, you need the funding. It doesn't matter whether you're running on a track, you still need good funding to get the best team. But I'm hoping it will show that anyone can try it at the grassroots, and everyone should. It's not just an amazing sport. It is so good for your mental health. Being out on the water, appreciating it.

McIntyre on mental health: "It's just like sport and physical health, you have to work on it"

O.C: You touched on mental health; how do you preserve your mental health as you try to achieve your sporting goals?

EM: I am a huge believer in going to talk to someone. We're so lucky that we get to work with some of the best psychologists. I've been in some dark times in my career, where I have been to see counsellors, and I think that is the key to improving yourself and working with yourself and working through those demons with someone.

Mental health is just like sports and physical health. You have to work on it and you have to improve it. And it took me five years of working with a psychologist every week to get to a place where I feel pretty strong and like I think I can overcome most obstacles. It took a long time and a lot of work.

I think 'Chasing Tokyo' is going to be amazing for that. I'm hoping we can see athletes at their most vulnerable. Certainly, you see me at my most vulnerable. And I hope it dispels this myth of we live perfect lives because we don't. It is tough. We have struggles like everyone else, and it takes a lot to overcome our demons.

O.C: How has sailing enriched you as a person and your life experiences?

For me, sailing and being on the water in general, is where I feel most at peace, is where I feel most content. And when I'm struggling and I need to get away from the world, that's where I go. And that's why I think everyone should give water sports a go, sailing a go, because there's nothing like being at one with the wind and the waves and all your energy is channelled into that.

The journey I've been on to Olympic sailing has also hugely improved me as a person. I think I had a lot of demons as a child being so competitive and over the course of my life, I had to learn to deal with that, to overcome setbacks, to overcome this feeling of never will I ever be good enough. And to keep pushing through that. Certainly, being part of the British sailing team and Team GB, the lessons I've learned about myself are going to put me in amazing stead for the rest of my life.

O.C: Is sailing more of a team sport or an individual sport?

EM: It can be both. That's the beauty of sailing. It can be a team sport. It can be an individual sport. I mean, in terms of team sport, like in any sport like it, the communication that goes on, the collaboration, the ultimate trust and respect you have to have for each other is huge.

O.C: Watching sailing races what standouts is the teamwork, the resilience, and boat and weather challenges. What is the most difficult bit of your sport for you?

EM: I think the most difficult part for me is being good across every condition and being able to adapt to that. I think that's what's so crazy about our sport is not like a 100m track, is not a 100m race long every time. It's a different length. Each day it's a different direction, different orientation to the land and we have to adapt to that very, very quickly and figure out the best way to go and win races on that day. And I think that's what makes it interesting.

Our sport is different. It's not the same as everything else, there's just a new variable every day, and that makes it exciting.

British Sailing Team in Tokyo - Getty Images
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

McIntyre on winning gold at Tokyo 2020 in 2021: I felt so much pressure being in my dad's shadow…

O.C: Tokyo 2020 - How did this moment rank in your career?

EM: Tokyo 2020 …I've chased after winning the Olympic gold medal my entire life. I'm one of the few people who had an Olympic gold medalist as a dad, and I definitely inherited his competitiveness. So my entire life was culminating to that moment. To go and win a gold medal meant everything to me. But more than that, the athlete I was at the time... I've never been as proud of who I was and the way I conducted myself.

O.C: You were able to achieve so much by competing in Tokyo. You will always be the final all-female crew to win Olympic gold in the 470, winning gold, at your first Olympics, you helped Hannah Mills become the most successful female Olympic sailor and emulated your father by winning Olympic sailing gold? what ranks the highest?

EM: I think winning it for myself. I so wanted to win a gold medal for Hannah and so wanted her to be a double gold medalist. I felt so much pressure being in my dad's shadow… And how do I cope with that? And I felt that my whole life. But to win my own, to finally know that I'm good enough at it was just huge for me personally that I was exactly the athlete I wanted to be.

O.C: How was it sailing with Hannah?

EM: Sailing with Han was amazing. The way Hannah and our coach Jo all worked together and the way we prioritized our goals, that was phenomenal. And I want to take that forward into my next campaign.

O.C: How has your success at the Tokyo Olympics inspired the next generation of young sailors?

EM: It's really hard to get a grasp of the impact you're having. I know at my sailing club there's an impact. I already have kids come up to me and say, 'I want to go and try and win a gold medal,' and that's just my small community. I've had messages from little kids who are desperately now trying to get into sailing, to learn the sport and also want to go to Olympics. And I just hope that some kid is inspired enough to get into sailing, to learn it, and no matter what background that's from, and just falling in love with the sport whether they go to the Olympics or not.

O.C: What comes to your mind when you think of Paris 2024?

EM: Fear! It’s quite a scary thing to be a gold medallist and try to go for another one. You're putting yourself on the line and in a way, you're even more vulnerable than you were before you won a gold medal. Everyone expects great things from you and expects you to know the answers.

So there’s a bit of fear about Paris, but also excitement. And it's a new challenge. And I need to try and develop and be a new athlete and an even better version of myself. And I love that, I love that challenge.

O.C: Your boat class became mixed gender for Paris 2024, are you looking forward to it?

EM: I was convinced I was going to be out of a job. I didn't think I was going to be able to be strong enough in my role in the boat. And actually it's worked out perfectly. And the mixed teams, it's so interesting and this new dynamic and I can 100% compete in my role against the boys and the girls do compete. And that's super cool. That’s another wicked and new thing about sailing. We are some of the best mixed sports and truly mixed, we work together closely every single day in a team.

We have a total split of boys medalists, girls medalists all coming together and now fighting in the same fleet. The depth of the fleet is huge. It's exciting to see what's going to happen.

O.C: Now that you've settled into your new event what are you most looking forward to at the next Games?

EM: The venue in Marseilles! The venue is unbelievable. The city is alive and thriving. But also, Paris 2024 is taking the steps to be the most sustainable Olympics ever. I love that. I'm so excited to see what they're going to do. I think as athletes and as the Olympics, we should be a driving force of that, hopefully I'll get to be a part of that Games and push that movement forward.

O.C: How concerned are you about the ocean health with rising cases of plastic pollution in open waters?

EM: It's massive. It's something that I think has become so prominent as people who use the water the whole time. Because when I was a kid, you never saw plastic in the ocean. And now, all of a sudden, it's like a snowballing effect, an avalanche has happened, there's just plastic everywhere. There’s nowhere we go in the world that doesn't have plastic. It’s not one a country problem, it’s the whole world's problem. That's why the Olympics is so perfect, to showcase what we can do as the world coming together and doing something collaboratively.

OC: How do you think you can help increase awareness of marine litter?

EM: I think that was massive for me. It's not just the people who use the water, it's not just their problem, It's everyone's problem. It doesn't matter whether you live in the middle of the country somewhere, there will be a river taking plastic somewhere and that plastic ends up in the ocean. Every single person needs to be taking and making more conscious decisions because there are choices out there to be made by each and every one of us to avoid using plastic. And the options are there you just have to look a tiny bit further than the plastic bottles on the shelves.

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