Elliot Hanson: With a little help from his friends 

Elliot Hanson of Great Britain competes in the Laser during the 2016 ISAF Sailing World Cup (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)
Elliot Hanson of Great Britain competes in the Laser during the 2016 ISAF Sailing World Cup (Photo by Jordan Mansfield/Getty Images)

Team GB's new golden generation of sailors locked out the podium at October's European Championships in Gdansk, with Elliot Hanson taking top spot. In November last year, Tokyo 2020 talked to the Olympic-bound athlete about how friendly competition with his teammates has driven him to new heights in time for the Olympic Games. 

Gold, Silver, Bronze.

The make-up of a podium couldn't be simpler. Yet the chances of landing on one in one of the most important international competitions are incredibly small.

Smaller still are the chances of all three podium places being taken by athletes from the same country. And it takes a wild imagination to contemplate the possibility that each of those medals could be won by childhood friends.

But that's exactly what happened during the 2020 Laser class European Championships, when Elliot Hanson stood on the top step of the podium alongside two friends he'd known and sailed alongside since he was a pre-teen.

Hanson's gold medal that day took him to the front of Great Britain's new golden generation of sailing, following in the footsteps of legendary Olympic gold medallists Ben Ainslie (four gold medals), Ian Percy (two gold medals) and Andrew Simpson (one gold medal, one silver medal). And the Tokyo-bound sailor is in no doubt as to how much the competition has helped him as he aims to reach the heights of his illustrious predecessors.

"I think if you are the only one, leaps and bounds ahead of your peers, then you really miss out on a lot of exposure to progressing," he told Tokyo 2020 in an exclusive interview.

"It's just harder to keep pushing when there's no one beating you."

The £100 boat

Hanson was born in Macclesfield, Cheshire, and his first experience on a boat was when his grandparents, who were "keen casual sailors", introduced him to the waters when the family were on holiday in Wales.

At first his biggest aim was to out-sail his brothers and cousins, in order to gain the attention of his parents. As he explained: "I just really relished, being the younger one, trying to beat them."

But soon his passion grew and he joined a local club and finally, after scrimping and saving, he managed to buy his own boat. Not one of the beautiful vessels he would go on to compete in, but a small, second-hand boat he purchased for the grand total of £100.

"The club loaned club members some boats to relieve a bit of the burden of owning your own boat. I put together some of my savings from birthdays and little things and had 100 pounds, and bought one of these little Optimists (dinghies) off them," Hanson explained.

"I spent hours and hours with my dad, sanding away and re-varnishing and doing up this Optimist, until I raced it and learned to sail in it over the next year or so."

It would prove to be the beginning of a journey that would lead all the way to Tokyo.

The new golden generation

The Team GB 1, 2, 3 that made up the podium of the men's Laser class European Championships in Gdansk in October 2020, included Hanson (gold), Michael Becket (silver) and Lorenzo Chiavirini (bronze). It was the first time that Britain had ever filled out a podium at a Laser class championship.

But above and beyond the fact they were all British, all three of them were close childhood friends.

"One of my best mates and teammates (Chiavirini) who I stood on the podium with at the Europeans, I first met him in 2006, the year before we both joined the proper national squad. I think we were sailing in the under 11s," recalled Hanson.

"And then Mickey, (Becket) who's a year younger than us, we were in a squad with his younger brother for about a year and then Mickey joined. So we've all been pushing each other since 2006."

But these friendships, that culminated in European glory and have formed the nucleus of a new golden generation of sailing, also bring the best out of each sailor as they aim for international honours.

It's a friendly rivalry that has taken them all the way to the top.

"You do really genuinely want to beat each other," Hanson said matter-of-factly. "Not just because they're your friends, but you also really respect them as athletes and sailors so you know how good they are. So to try and beat them is an achievement."

He'd be quite chilled walking onto the dock,

and then the second the sails were up and you were out on the race course he'd chew your head off.

Learning from the legends

But while competing against friends can give you the impetus to push yourself harder than you otherwise would, nothing beats experience when it comes to understanding what it takes to win at an Olympic Games.

Fortunately for Hanson, he has been able to learn from the best, as members of Team GB's original golden generation have reached out to give him advice.

In fact, more than just learning from these words of wisdom, Hanson has witnessed first-hand the attitude these Olympians take into competition.

"I've been fortunate enough to have interactions with all of those guys and learn from them," Hanson explained. "Ben (Ainslie), for example, I ended up joining his Youth America's Cup team... and the one thing I remember from that event is that he'd be quite chilled walking onto the dock, and then the second the sails were up and you were out on the race course he'd chew your head off if you put a foot wrong!"

Hanson had the good fortune to experience the intensity and passion of Ainslie as they sailed together. And even though he was young, he didn't escape being in the firing line of one of sailing's most decorated winners.

"Once or twice my leg would get stuck on a winch and block him from using the power from the boat," Hanson remembered with a chuckle. "And I had an earful certainly a few times. So you know, that was great!"

A first (and second) taste of Tokyo

When Elliot Hanson sails next year on the Enoshima waters that will host the Tokyo 2020 sailing competition, it will not be the first time he has raced on those tides.

His initial experience was the 2018 World Cup Series Enoshima, where he clinched gold in spectacular fashion, winning by the equivalent of two medal places. It was a race that filled the young British sailor with confidence.

"Before I knew it, I'd amassed a really big lead and completed the event, which was a pretty cool thing to have done in the Olympic venue and against the best competition.

"It's great to have that experience and confidence... and just to have won such a significant event in the Olympic venue."

But Hanson's experiences of the Olympic venue have not all been positive. In the Tokyo 2020 test event in August 2019, Hanson finished a disappointing 22nd.

Even though dealing with the setback was "difficult" at the time, Hanson now sees more value in that competition than the one he stormed to gold in a year earlier.

"Looking back I learned as much as actually possible having done the two extremes," said Hanson. "And I guess that's why they call it a test event. And obviously I'm very grateful to have had those experiences to be able to right a lot of those wrongs for next year."

I don't think there's too many dissimilar characteristics between these guys who you call exceptional, standout people in sport.

Gearing up for the Games, Ronaldo-style

For now, it's full steam ahead as Hanson hopes to fulfil his dreams on the Olympic stage in Tokyo.

"I think it's something you dream of from a very young age. It would be great to be able to perform at the Olympic Games and it would hold significant meaning, not only for myself in terms of my career moving forward, but also my team."

But, as an avid Manchester United supporter Hanson, he's also managed to find inspiration from someone outside of his own sport – Portugal's footballing icon and former Red Devil, Cristiano Ronaldo.

"We've spoken a lot about the golden era of sailing, but it wasn't so dissimilar to the golden era of international football," said Hanson when asked about which Manchester United player he'd most like to take out for a day of sailing.

"But it would be more to just try and draw on his (Ronaldo's) character, face-to-face how he operates. I don't think there's too many dissimilar characteristics between these guys who you call exceptional, standout people in sport."

For now, Hanson will be looking to channel the spirit of his sporting idols as he goes for gold in Tokyo next year. And if he does achieve a podium finish, he can thank his friends who pushed him every step of the way.

The Olympic sailing competition begins on 25 July 2021 at Enoshima Yacht Harbour.