‘It was just like being back in a hockey team’

Hannah Macleod has not rested on her laurels since winning a gold medal at the Rio Olympics. Since then the Great Britain hockey player has endured the ups and downs of life on the ocean waves, and continues outside her comfort zone on Sunday when she competes in the London Marathon. Nick Friend finds out more

Hannah Macleod thought she had her post-hockey life all mapped out. She chuckles as she contemplates the early stages of a retirement like few others: “I thought I was ready for a quiet life and evenings down at the pub – I never thought I’d be this person.”

‘This person’ is back on dry land after tackling a challenge far removed from her comfort zone when taking part in a leg of the Clipper Round the World Yacht Race aboard the Great Britain boat.

It all happened so fast. It is not even two years since Maddie Hinch’s heroics in the shootout in Rio secured the Olympic gold for Britain, the apex of Macleod’s long career. Macleod retired midway through 2017, opening the door for a sea change as incredible in its magnitude as for its ambition.

By her own admission, Macleod was no sailor; neither did she have any desire to spend the rest of her life navigating the high seas. However, there was little hesitation in taking on the challenge of a lifetime when approached to compete in the Clipper race as part of an initiative to feature a former athlete on each leg of the epic circumnavigation.

 

“I’d never heard of it previously,” says 33-year-old Macleod of the adventure that would consume her every waking moment for months. “It would be the absolute dream of any amateur sailor – it’s the pinnacle. I decided that the least I could do was go along to the training and see what it was about. Once I was there, it just wasn’t something that I could turn down.

“For me, it was the opportunity to be a beginner again, knowing that I’d retired from hockey already. I was no longer going to be doing something that I was quite good at. Whatever work I ended up doing, I’d be starting off lower than where I had reached in the hockey world. It was a good opportunity to challenge myself in that way. I wanted to expose myself and to feel uncomfortable again.”

Macleod considers every word carefully. Every sentence offers an insight into the mind of a former elite athlete. Every thought is an eye-opening account of the challenges of what happened next.

“I was absolutely terrified for the first day of every week of the training,” she admits. “I really was dreading it. Whether I’d forgotten everything, whether I’d remember all my knots. I had all these kind of anxieties. But I knew it was a challenge and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There was no way I was going to walk away from it.”

Having spent much of her career beset by niggling injuries, as well as the accompanying unrelenting stresses of professional sport, there can have been few amateurs better placed to understand and appreciate the camaraderie of life aboard a racing yacht.

“I generally tried to be as ignorant as possible,” she admits, citing the internal pressures facing a relative rookie in an unforgiving environment.

“It’s a lot like elite sport in that it’s tough for a lot of the time. With elite sport, you hurt all the time, you’re never injury-free, you’re never fresh as a daisy – there’s a lot of rubbish time behind the scenes. But it was all worth it when we’d see something good or when, as a group, we’d overcome something difficult. Ultimately, the good memories always last longer than the rubbish times. Sailing was exactly the same – day-to-day it was a real grind.

“The living conditions were horrendous. Just being wet all day, not having fresh water, being in the same underwear all week, having a wet bed, food not particularly great. Being an athlete, you get to go home, have a warm shower and go again. But this was just relentless.

“Something as simple as a sunset or a sunrise when everyone is quiet and just watching in the silence is just so special and brings the team together. You just don’t get that in an office. It was just like being back in a team.

“Day-to-day, it wasn’t that physically tough, but mentally it was really hard. Seeing the experiences people went through around me, it was so similar to what I’d seen on the hockey pitch – the camaraderie, the understanding of what everyone is going through, the ability to moderate yourself to ensure that you’re not a complete tyrant among the group. What surprised me most was how much I’d learnt playing sport and how useful it was, even though I’d never sailed before.”

The 2017 edition of the Clipper race was overshadowed by tragedy. Simon Speirs, a 60-year-old crew member on the same boat as Macleod was about to join, was washed overboard and buried at sea. So Macleod was fully aware of the sad circumstances into which she was arriving. As a mark of respect, she spent her first day in Australia attending a memorial for Speirs.

Though the incident did not make Macleod think twice about her participation in the race, it acted as a cruel and timely reminder of the supreme power of the ocean. “The investigation was still going on,” she recalls, “so I had crew members who were having to re-enact the moment, relive the moment and be scrutinised over the details. The report said that it was essentially a freak accident.

“Simon was experienced, he was clipped on. You are aware of the dangers – there have been reports in the past of where people haven’t followed the necessary safety procedures and put people at risk. But there are also times when you’ve done everything right and everything in your power to prevent an accident, but you are ultimately dealing with the ocean. It’s a phenomenal environment when you’re out there and at the absolute mercy of the weather and the sea.”

The impact of the tragedy on the rest of the crew was unsurprising. The very purpose of the expedition had been turned on its axis. Even Macleod’s role as an incoming member of the team had been altered. Alone among a group in mourning, she had not witnessed events that were still raw.

“For me personally, it was really obvious that we had to just look after each other,” she says. “We were there just to get the boat from A to B. We wanted to perform well, and to learn as well, but it wasn’t about pushing boundaries or being as competitive and fast as we possibly could be.

“It was really evident that there was no point in wading in and trying to be all competitive and chief motivator. It was just about joining the journey that the group was going through and playing my part within that. It was quite difficult for some people who had paid a lot of money, wanted to be competitive and on the podium. That’s what they set out to do and what it was all about for them.

“There were people having flashbacks when they were working in certain areas of the boat. There were people having panic attacks. It was just a case of making sure they were safe, calming them down, making sure other people weren’t freaking out and just being quite pragmatic about it all and helping people talk about it.”

Now home, Macleod’s focus has shifted significantly – from the group solidarity of ocean racing to the single-mindedness of the long-distance runner. On Sunday, she will reach the culmination of a two-year period, in which she has won Olympic gold and made her yachting debut, when she competes in the London Marathon. It is, she confesses, a bold move for someone for whom endurance has never been a priority.

“The marathon is just something that’s always been on my list of things I’d love to do,” Macleod says, accompanied by wry laughter at what she is about to undertake. “I was one of those people who welled up watching the highlights last year. I’ve always watched it on television. I’m definitely not an endurance athlete by any stretch of the imagination. My love just came from watching it and seeing people achieve what they achieve. I find it really emotional.”

Macleod’s desire to test herself in another discipline is testament to an immense personal willpower. She looks back on her ultimate glory in Rio de Janeiro with a mixture of pride and continued disbelief. She explains that throughout the Olympic experience, she and her team-mates were sheltered from the impact of their success.

She is reminded of a conversation with Marlon Devonish, a member of Team GB’s gold-winning sprint relay team in 2004. “He just said to me, ‘You do know it will never sink in, don’t you?’ And that appears to be very true.”

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nick Friend graduated with a degree in Modern Languages from Durham University, where he was sports editor of the student newspaper, Palatinate. He has edited Sports Gazette for St Mary’s University since September 2017, and was runner-up in the 2018 David Welch Young Sportswriter competition. Nick, an ICC and ECB-qualified cricket coach and umpire, spent six months working as a coach for Cricket Argentina as part of his year abroad. In more delusional times he had set his sights on a career in professional cricket. Now he counts darts, ski jumping and snooker among his passions, with an unnecessarily in-depth knowledge of all three.  Nick’s latest articles

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