IT’S BEEN a whistle-stop 18 months for Weymouth’s Saskia Clark who has gone from being partner-less at a crucial time to an Olympic medal favourite.
Clark initially teamed up with two-time Olympic champion Sarah Ayton to campaign for home Games selection in the 470 dinghy class, after Ayton’s boat of choice – the Yngling keelboat – was dropped from the London 2012 line-up.
The duo made steady progress but when Ayton announced her shock retirement in February 2011 after finding it too much combining being a full-time athlete and a new mum, Clark faced a worrying time.
With just months to go before the Skandia Sail for Gold regatta 2011 – a selection trial for the Olympic test event – the Olympian decided to pair up with up-and-coming 470 helm Hannah Mills.
Their rapid success has surprised even Clark herself.
After claiming a string of medals, they became the first British sailors to win the women's 470 World Championships in May and are now among the medal favourites going into the Games.
Clark, 31, said: “Hannah and I always thought we could qualify, it was just whether we could have enough time.
“We surprised ourselves how quickly it came together and we both feel really lucky.
“We’d both had a mixed previous four years, I’d sailed with Penny (Clark), Pippa (Wilson) and Sarah.
“We knew what worked and didn’t work for us and because of the time schedule we could be really honest with each other about those things.
“It’s been all about performance and doing our best.”
Mills, 25, and Clark, 31, knew each other through friends and had sailed against each other but had no idea how they would gel as a team.
They were so nervous at Sail for Gold last year they did not eat or sleep for a week.
Clark added: “It was pretty much a do or die regatta for me and Hannah.
“We knew if we did well we could gain Olympic test event selection. We didn’t eat or sleep that week at all.
“It’s really good having had that experience to know we can still perform under those kind of nerves.”
Clark praised her sponsor Volvo Cars UK for standing by her as she switched helms.
She said: “I was lucky Volvo stayed on board when Sarah and I stopped Sailing together and I teamed up with Hannah.
“It was really important psychologically and the money enabled us to buy the boat Sarah and I had been using.”
Mills and Clark’s potential shone through when they claimed silver at Sail for Gold 2011, then again at the Weymouth and Portland International Regatta test event and the Perth world cup event in December before winning the World Championship title in Barcelona.
Clark said their progress has been assisted by their Skandia Team GBR training partners Sophie Weguelin and Sophie Ainsworth.
She added: “Since we started winning medals we’ve won medals at every event we’ve competed at and that’s quite an impressive thing.
“Performances go up and down but we’ve managed to get a level team.
“If we’ve had a bad race then we’ve fought to come back.”
In June this year, Wey-mouth’s 470 Girls claimed bronze at the Skan-dia Sail for Gold Regatta 2012 – the last big test before the Games – despite a challenging week of weather conditions.
Their sights are now firmly fixed on the London 2012 podium.
For Clark, the Olympics are unfinished business since finishing sixth at the 2008 Bejing Games with Christina Bassadone.
She said: “I definitely always wanted to be an Olympian.
“I remember watching the 1992 Games and feeling really inspired.
“I was quite sporty at school but more in athletics and running. Then sailing became my sport.”
Clark’s love of sailing developed out of a family hobby and her parents ‘sacrificed their weekends’ to transport her and her older sister to events around the country.
She said: “We’ve been coming down to Weymouth since I was about eight, my sister was two years older, she was racing when the academy was where Castle Cove Sailing Club is now.
“At first I was just mucking around windsurfing.
“I probably started racing when I was 11 or 12, in Optimists.
“I hope having something like the Olympics and seeing all the amazing athletes in Weymouth and London, inspires children to think: ‘Maybe I can make that happen’.”
She added: “It’s been a really hard time for Weymouth with the traffic stuff, people have seen the negative side.
“I hope now all that’s done, Weymouth people will really enjoy the summer and having the Olympics on their doorstep.”
She said: “It’s a really nice place to be, we enjoy living here and doing climbing, cycling and windsurfing.”
Post London 2012, Clark has not ruled out doing another Olympic campaign.
She added: “We’ve only done 18 months together so we might want to keep going - and it’s Rio.
“No offence to Weymouth but Rio has got some sunshine.”