Olympic champion Eilidh McIntyre: Why I'm retiring

When you have tasted gold, no other flavour could ever taste as sweet.

That was what it came down to for Eilidh McIntyre, an Olympic champion in Tokyo two years ago, but who had lost the belief that she could reach the summit of the sailing world once more in Paris 2024.

McIntyre had followed in the wake of her father Michael when she claimed Olympic gold in the 470 class alongside Hannah Mills, the most successful female Olympic sailor of all time.

While Mills retired shortly after Tokyo, McIntyre initially planned to carry onto Paris, with the class changing to a mixed event in 2024.

Now, the 28-year-old has come to the realisation that she will not be challenging for the top spot in less than 18 months’ time, and just could not imagine competing at the Games without that belief.

She explained: “I want to go to another Olympics and I want to challenge for another medal but I only want to go if I’m going to be battling it out for gold.

“I don’t want to go and be in that final race of the Olympics absolutely nowhere near to getting a medal. These things happen at the Olympics and you can’t control it.

"But I, in my heart, just don’t believe that in the time frame available to us that we are going to be in a situation to battle it out for a medal and for a gold. I just lost belief in that cause. I don’t want to go to the Games for the t-shirt.”

In some sports, the challenge at the Olympics is about maintaining a peak of dominance over multiple cycles – two and counting for Adam Peaty, four for Sir Jason Kenny, five for Sir Steve Redgrave.

Sailing is different though. Each cycle involves stripping everything back before starting again.

Where the five-year build-up to Tokyo ensured McIntyre and Mills were as prepared as they could possibly be, the quicker turnaround to Paris meant that she and new partner Martin Wrigley were always up against it.

She said: “A lot of people have said ‘it’s only three years, you can make that’. That actually makes it harder.

"I had five years to build the team for Tokyo and get it into the right place. The great thing about the five years was that we came away with the gold medal but the knock-on was that there were only three this cycle. I tried to take an easy year but it wasn’t really an easy year and it’s actually been a bit of a mess.

“The knock-on of that has been quite hard. I know other people have done it really successfully but I’ve found it challenging to come off the back of that.”

This was not a rash decision for McIntyre, who consulted her coach from Tokyo Joe Glanfield, as well as Mills and Mills’s previous sailing partner Saskia Clark, not to mention her own father, an Olympic champion back in 1988.

In the end though, as much as she wanted to believe otherwise, she knew deep down that calling it a day was the only decision – even if it involved one of the hardest conversations of her life with Wrigley.

She added: “There’s no turning back when you’ve lost belief. It makes me super sad. I would really love to go to another Games and challenge for another medal but I don’t believe anymore.

“I woke up on New Year’s Day and I was dreading the year, I wasn’t excited, I wasn’t buzzing and all I could think was that with one year to go, I should be so excited. It made me really question where we were at and where the team was at.

“We had a few crisis meetings. In that moment, I was looking for something that I could believe in. I wanted someone to change my mind and make me believe and I didn’t, I just went the other way. That probably is more on me than anyone else.

“It’s probably one of the hardest conversations I’ve ever had to have (telling Wrigley). I hated it and I said to him that this is probably more of a reflection on me than you and how I feel about it than anything else. He’s rallied and put a new team together which is amazing.

“I knew that because I didn’t believe so badly that it was detrimental to our team. I couldn’t come back from it, no matter how hard I tried. It’s the chicken and the egg situation. Is it my lack of belief that is stunting our development? Has it all just spiralled to make it worse?”

A world and Olympic champion, McIntyre achieved everything you can in the sport, and in time the appreciation of that successful and challenging journey will take over from the sharp pain of stepping away from the sport.

And as for her future away from the water? As with any elite athlete, the challenge will be to stay busy, and McIntyre certainly plans to do that.

“I’m starting out a property business, I’m trying to get into a motivational speaking space, I love that, taking my journey and everything I’ve learned over my years into the business world,” she added.

“Maybe continuing my podcast ‘Out of the Shadows’ trying to get season two of that set up. Life goes in all different twists and turns and I’m really excited. I’m sad about leaving but the weight off my shoulders since I made the decision is amazing.”

Sportsbeat 2023