‘My biggest inspiration is chasing dreams, both my own and seeing other people chase theirs. Making a difference… Opening people's eyes… I love that.’
Hannah Stodel is a British Paralympic Sailor, 3-time World Champion and all-round Action Woman. However, despite achieving so much and having so many fantastic Paralympic sailors, what you might not realize is that Paralympic Sailing has recently been removed as an Official Paralympic Sport. ‘Official’ statements from the governing bodies state that it’s merely due to the fact that not enough international Paralympic athletes are interested in competing regularly enough to make the category feasible but, looking at it from the inside, that’s not true AT ALL. The real reason was political and largely due to bad management. Hannah says ‘Sailing is a fantastic sport – it’s given me such a huge sense of freedom, achievement and hugely increased my confidence, especially when I was younger, so we really need to encourage more young athletes to take it up, both recreationally and competitively. Although, that said, there are more than enough athletes willing to compete in the category, so we really need to stand up for ourselves and for them to stop making excuses. If it’s a management problem, the athletes are happy to come on board – just like they do in cycling, rowing and other sports.’
In an effort to bring it back (and to challenge herself in her typically feisty and fearless manor!), Hannah’s now actively campaigning to bring the sport back, raising the topic in The House of Commons, and is currently training to take on the most notorious sailing course in the world, The Vendée Globe. If she completes it, she’ll become the 8th woman and only ever Paralympian to conquer it - and definitely show them how it’s done! Here she tells all…
ON DECIDING TO CHALLENGE THE VENDÉE GLOBE…
It’s been on the back burner for a very long time, since I first met Dame Ellen MacArthur. We were at a press day and the press boats were everywhere, completely taking over, so much so that they chased us off the racecourse. Having had enough, Ellen smiled and said ‘Alright, let’s just pull off’ and off we went, sailing off into the distance leaving the press behind. We get on really well; she really understands me and what I want to achieve. Standing on the trampoline of her boat, looking at the water, she said ‘Do you feel this?... The freedom? There’s nothing like it.’ That’s how the discussion about the Vendée began. It’s one of the most difficult races imaginable and she’d finished it. It’s something I can really appreciate and, after talking, I could understand why she’d chosen to do it and how much it had meant to her. People say ‘Why do this? Why push yourself to do such a difficult challenge? but I say ‘Why not?!’
‘I’m just imagining the two of you like Captain Jack Sparrow when he escapes the guards in Pirates of the Caribbean.’ Yes, it was a little bit like that haha but that’s one of the great things about Ellen. Behind all of the media circus and entertaining, ultimately she just really loves the sailing, the purity of it. She just said ‘No, this is crazy. Let’s take a minute to breathe… to appreciate the sailing’ It’s very refreshing.
WHAT DOES THE VENDÉE GLOBE INVOLVE?
One of the American competitors, Rich Wilson, explains it really well. His book is titled ‘Race France to France. Leave Antarctica to Starboard’ and that’s literally it. You race alone from France and you keep sailing left until you find France again. The current record is 74 days. I’m under no illusions that I’m going to be anywhere near that but, if I complete it in less than 100 days, I’ll be happy.
I love this race because not only is it a challenge but, even though you’re alone on board, you never feel alone because your whole team is around you, supporting you. At the end of the day, they get you to the start line, they get you in the best possible shape, they get the boat there… it’s a massive team sport so that’s really nice.
ON HAVING BIG DREAMS… ‘TOO BIG? NEVER! YOU HAVE TO GO FOR IT’
‘I think more people need to do things like that because, yes, it’s not easy but what’s the point in making everything in life the same? That would be really dull. Pushing the boundaries, believing in yourself, trying to achieve great things… that’s what makes the world evolve and motivates other people to do the same too.’ I agree, especially now as I get older, I think ‘Why not?’ I was at an event and people were saying ‘You’re crazy! You’re absolutely crazy’ but I say ‘No. It’s only crazy because no one’s done it, and why can’t someone do it? I don’t see why not.’
‘Nobody ever won by being like everybody else. That’s what makes us different… gives us creativity and drive to achieve. To be happy and to succeed, you’ve got to embrace the crazy’
‘Your disability has never seemed much of a disability. You’ve achieved incredible things that most other people never do. You see it in other para-athletes too… Tucker Dupree, David Smith… Able-bodied or para, there are so many different sports, skills and body types, each with their own mental and physical challenges, so there’s something for everyone.’ I agree. Never look at what you can’t do. Everybody – be it mind, body, emotional or otherwise - has some disability so actually, whoever you are, anything is possible. Don’t hold yourself back; just look at the tools you have to work with, adapt and conquer.
ON PEOPLE JUDGING ABILITY OR DISABILITY TO ACHIEVE…
This happens a lot, even more than we see and often by people who don’t try themselves. It used to frustrate me but now I just think ‘Who are you? Why are you judging?’ I’ve always been quite a strong advocate of: the first impression is b*****ks. I mean, take one look at me… I’m a girl with one arm. Does that mean I can’t sail around the world or straight? Not at all; yet, sometimes, even sailors look and say ‘No, you can never do it.’ I just think ‘You haven’t even given me a shot. Take me sailing and then maybe we’ll discuss it [probably not!]’ *Smiles*
The biggest problem is that the media conditions us to categorize people but everybody is different. If you say you want to achieve a stereotypical dream, like be a pop star or reality star, that’s apparently achievable; but if you want to do something different and incredible they dismiss it as being too difficult. It really annoys me because a) who are you to judge? and b) how do you know that this person can’t do what they said they’re going to do? Give people a chance.
‘We agree. It shouldn’t make a difference. You might have a person with two arms and they might not be able to sail or they might get sea sick.’ Exactly. Look at Alex Thomson – he’s an absolutely brilliant sailor but even he challenged the Vendée Globe 4 times and only finished twice. I really admire him. It says a lot about his resilience and strength character. He wanted to conquer it and he never gave up, even when people said ‘Oh, look at Alex Thompson’… I just thought ‘Well, actually, look at Alex Thomson, he’s carrying on (and he did it!)’ I love that about him.
‘I’d say it’s more of an achievement that people try to challenge themselves to achieve incredible things in the first place and never give up. Most people never do…’
‘All successful people have something ingrained in their brains where they aren’t put off by rejection. They see it as a positive, turn it around and use it as fuel’
THE UPS & DOWNS OF TRAINING FOR THE VENDÉE
Training for the Vendée is a completely different animal to inshore sailing. It’s offshore so you have to be much stronger and fitter (lots more gym training) and the conditions are harsher too so you have to be extremely strong mentally. It’s really made me appreciate inshore sailing even more. Before, I could go home, have a shower in the evening and recover properly. Now, all that runs through my minds is ‘I’m soggy, I’m wet, I’ve eaten a pot noodle in the last 48 hours, I haven’t slept.’ Then you have to motivate yourself all over again, even if you’re exhausted and low on energy. Nobody can do it for you. It’s tough so you really have to love it.
The other week, I had a really brutal session. Three days in, I’d slept a sub-total of 30 minutes. I felt terrible, I smelt really funny - even I was thinking ‘God, I can really smell myself right now… like, I’ve got a pot noodle for dinner… Great! Why am I doing this?’ At those times, you really need to dig deep… Although it’s not always like that. Incredibly amazing things happen on the boat too (and funny!) but to do well, especially in a solo race, you really need to mentally prepare yourself to cope with the gravity of such a vast balance of physical challenges and emotional.
Returning from Norway recently, I had the worst night ever – I was surrounded by the storm from hell. It was like Armageddon. I was thinking ‘I’m really debating my future here’ and then, at 3am, I was sitting on deck wearing my lifejacket, really b****y miserable by this point. Cuddling my cup of tea, I was thinking ‘Yeah, this is bad’ but then, all of a sudden, this amazing pod of dolphins joined me. They stayed with me for an hour, just playing with the boat… Watching them, I thought ‘Yes, this is kind of cool. This outweighs it’ and then you have the magical sunsets and sunrises… You’re the only boat there and you know that no one else is seeing this right now, as pretty as it is. The freedom… It’s magic.
You need to learn different skills too…
Training for offshore sailing is a massive challenge but incredibly exciting. It’s a completely new skill and the weather and water conditions are changing constantly. No day is the same and you’re constantly learning something new, which I love. It really tests your ability to think on your feet. You need to learn all the proper navigation strategies, to navigate in the dark, identify the different lights, sounds… (each ship is marked with different lights, each meaning something different. You can tell how long a ship is, what it’s doing (e.g. if it’s a fishing boat, cruise ship etc.)) and you need to learn fast. With inshore sailing, we race around highly visible inflatable buoys, whereas now I have to navigate to somewhere that could be miles away in the dark. Let’s just say you learn the hard way when you’re in the English Channel, completely sleep depraved and then, suddenly, the entire world’s traffic is there. It’s like ‘Urrgghh! God!’ but it’s do or die – not for the faint-hearted! *smiles*
MOMENTS THAT MAKE IT WORTHWHILE
2 GUYS, A GIRL & A PIZZA PLACE
So many funny things happen with sailing, especially working with 2 guys. We’re not always travelling on the boat so, logistically, there are always disasters. They’re great at sea, organizationally challenged on land haha. There have been times when I’ve already left on the ferry with the boat and they’ve called me saying that they’ve forgotten something or missed their flight and expect me to sort it, or turned up drunk... I become like their mum and help them to sort it. It’s a real comedy of errors but I wouldn’t change it.
TINKER, TAILOR, DOCTOR? SAILOR?
Once, in Beijing, my coach Steve dropped a huge lump of lead on his finger, cutting through the tendons and worse. He loves a joke so we just laughed, carrying on with our work. He was saying ‘Guys, I’ve really hurt myself’… we were like ‘Yeah, yeah’ but he really had. There was blood everywhere. The weirdest thing though was that one of the American sailors on board, Rick Door, is a hand surgeon. We all trekked off to the hospital together and he ended up teaching the Chinese doctors how to do hand surgery whilst he fixed Steve’s hand – and it was supposedly their hospital and specialty. It was the most surreal thing… your competitor saves you! … but it really shows the team spirit we have as a sport.
At sea, we see some incredible creatures, the most beautiful being the orca whale. They come within a few metres of the boat, which is scary but completely awe-inspiring. Nature’s really cool because, when you’re struggling or had a rough night at sea and then everything goes calm again and one of these incredible animals pops up out of nowhere, it really makes you stop and think… just to breathe and be in the moment. That’s when I love sailing the most. On a recent trip, this weird little bird came and sat on one of the sail batons. It was sideways and looked really uncomfortable. I told him ‘What are you doing?’ He just clung onto the sail for ages until, eventually, he dropped off and parked himself in a bag and just sat there happily keeping me company. I said ‘Oh, alright, cool. Come for a ride.’
I’D LOVE TO SAIL WITH… ANT MIDDLETON
I’d love to take Ant sailing and scare him a little bit. He’s very scary on his show so he might shout at me a little bit but it would be so much fun. On TV, he’s all butch, macho, SAS gggrrrrrr but, actually, sailing is such a weird sport. I think it might be quite brutal for him. He makes everyone cry so I want to see what he’s really made of… Is he really tough enough, or can sailing break an SAS person? Let’s see! *Smiles*
‘My favourite quote is ‘Never give up.’ It’s everywhere around you; it’s written on everything. Everything you see was created by someone with a vision; a dream that they believed in and didn’t let go off. If they can do it, why not you?!’