Impending motherhood has called a halt to adventurer Hannah White’s ambition to break two world speed sailing records this year. However, the unexpected halt to her plans is only temporary while she takes on an even bigger challenge, as she tells The Mixed Zone’s Laura Winter
Hannah White thought she had her life meticulously planned, at least for the next few years or so. From her latest challenge, an attempt to break the world speed sailing record over five hundred metres and one nautical mile, to her broadcasting career presenting the sailing on BT Sport, the adventurer was in control and on task. And while the weather, or more precisely the lack of strong winds, played havoc with her record ambitions, what was to come next would disrupt her carefully-laid plans and change her life forever.
“I’m pregnant,” White announces. “And it’s an extraordinary feeling. I got married in December 2015 and after two miscarriages we found out in October I was pregnant. You want something so badly, and then it comes and you suddenly think, ‘Oh my God, this is actually happening. How is this going to work?’ The theory of it is a lot easier than the actual reality. From day one your plans are thrown entirely out the window and for someone who likes to control things and plan things as much as I do, that’s been really hard to get my head around. And I expect the next five months and the future will be no different.”
Miscarriages in March and July broke the adventurer’s heart; from the grief she suffered to the traumatic physical experience of losing a baby. It made her afraid to try again while she continued to train and prepare for Project Speedbird. But after fertility treatment she fell pregnant. The baby is due in July. White is used to a brutal training regime, but the full extent of pregnancy has left her exhausted. The record is well and truly shelved.
“I always thought I’d never get sick, I’d never get ill and I’d train throughout. I expected to be sailing in my first trimester. The reality is I have been bed-bound for three months,” the 33-year-old explained.
“I certainly haven’t been able to do any fitness work, no sailing, no training. Just functioning on a daily basis has been very difficult and I’ve lost a bit of weight because I’ve been so ill. I have been to the gym maybe half a dozen times. I’ve walked the dog a lot, but that sounds pretty pathetic! My resting heart rate has risen 15 beats per minute because I have more blood in my body, so I’m out of breath walking up the stairs. The overriding advice I have had while pregnant is to listen to your body and there is no doubt over the last 14 weeks I have done that. When I do go to the gym, I would normally squat 80kg, but now I’m only squatting 40kg and finding it really hard. It’s easy to get frustrated by that, but you just have to change the parameters. You’re still working hard, it’s just that’s all your body is capable of.
“I’ve started doing more rowing, my body is enjoying the cardio more than weights. It’s about keeping your body moving, a lot of stretching, a lot of yoga. Whatever your body fancies.”
So what of the record? Astonishingly, White has broken the 500 metres speed record several times in training, but without an adjudicator present nothing stands. While that has been frustrating, White now admits she is ready for a break and motherhood.
“It’s January now, so I wouldn’t be on the water,” she reasons. “But while I’m pregnant, I’m not prepared to take the risk. It’s a dangerous activity and it’s just not worth it. Last year we were on track to attempt the record and the plan was to do it. But it’s a complicated process to get it adjudicated. You need a hotline to God to find out what the weather is going to be like. We had booked it for October, but the weather was a disaster. We carried on training and broke the record several times unofficially, but there was no one there to adjudicate. It was very frustrating to know that I was performing and the boat was performing, but there wasn’t an official there to tick that box and say, ‘You’ve done it’.
“But they are the rules and that’s how it is. And I do respect those rules entirely. The World Speed Sailing Council helped me enormously, but the rules are there to be obeyed. On one hand we were delighted to have broken the record, and to have achieved what we did, but on the other hand we were hugely disappointed we weren’t able to get it signed off. So we made the call to shut up shop.
“We wanted to try again in the spring, but now this news has come along. The timing is actually great – there is no question we need some more funding for the project if it’s going to carry on. There’s more we can do in performance in terms of speed and this is a great opportunity for me to take a step away from the boat having been at it for two years.
“Then, after the summer, we will get back to it. The boys will carry on testing and sailing the boat so when I’m ready, we are ready. We can’t put the boat in a shed and forget about it for six months, we have to use that time wisely. So for me it’s about getting some more investment, and for the boys it’s trying to see what they can get out of the boat.”
How quickly White will bounce back to fitness, as superstars Jess Ennis-Hill and Dame Sarah Storey have, is “anyone’s guess”. She acknowledges that every pregnancy is different. She finds the prospect of motherhood “daunting”. But White, who has sailed the Atlantic solo three times, cannot wait to get her little one out on the water.
“It’s thoroughly daunting, exciting but daunting. And for all athletes it’s the same – you don’t know what’s going to happen and how your body is going to react and how you’re going to bounce back. Who knows?” White says. “I don’t really feel grown-up enough to be a mum. It’s something I wanted, but only recently, and I’m the last of my friends to have children. I’m just going to chill out, relax and go with the flow. I don’t think there’s a right and wrong way to be a mum – you just have to figure out your way of doing it.
“I’m very lucky that James is amazing and will be an amazing father. We just have to find a way that works for us. She’ll kill me for saying this, but my mother was quite organised. There was never chaos and mess. You could have fun as long as it was clean and tidy and quiet. I won’t be like that. But as long as they have fun, as long as they are loved, that’s all that matters. We live in beautiful part of the world, they are going to have a fabulous countryside upbringing. I have no doubt they will know how to drive a tractor and know how to sail a boat. We have bought a boat, a little cruiser, so I’m excited that from age dot, they will be taken out pottering up and down the river, getting used to being on the water.”
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Laura Winter is a sports journalist, presenter and event host. She worked in sports communications for the International Rowing Federation for two years, before working and training as a journalist in Gloucestershire, covering a variety of sports including rugby, boxing, football, and triathlon. She then turned freelance at the end of 2014 and is part of the team who founded Voxwomen, a women’s cycling show that seeks to give the female elite peloton the coverage they deserve. Laura’s latest articles.