Hannah Stodel: How I Became a Paralympian
Hannah Stodel the four times Paralympic sailor, and three times World Champion on her successes to date and plans for her next big challenge: entering the legendary Vendee Globe race in 2024…
I consider myself very fortunate to have lived by the east coast of the UK throughout my early years and grown so close to the sea. Both of my parents were accomplished sailors and members of Brightlingsea Sailing Club in Essex, where I was born. My mum narrowly missed out on selection to the 1988 Olympic Games in Korea and Dad raced at world level, too. So, my love of sailing was inherited from my parents really – I grew up with them racing so sailing was something of a family hobby, I’ve just always loved it.
I was born missing my right lower arm, but from a young age I began competing in mainstream events alongside able-bodied participants. When I was 13 years old, I became the youngest ever winner of the BT YJA Young Sailor of the Year award for my achievements at the Mirror World Championships, which I was hugely proud of.
Throughout my teens, I went to Royal Hospital School (www.royalhospitalschool.org) which is located right next to Alton Water Reservoir on the Essex-Suffolk border. The Royal Hospital School Sailing Academy is an established RYA Training Centre and has a fleet of more than 50 dinghies catering for every level of sailing, from beginner boats to Olympic pathway craft. Sailing is a huge part of the co-curricular offering at the school, so it was a dream situation for me because I could do what I loved and keep up with schoolwork at the same time. The school staff were super understanding and supportive of my ambitions to race at a very high level, and the teachers helped me to incorporate taking time off for racing internationally without it affecting my studies.
By the age of 15 I was doing well on the able-bodied racing circuit, and I had not actually considered disability sport as an option for me. Then I got invited to train with Andy Cassell, the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Gold medallist in the Sonar class, for a weekend in Cowes on the Isle of Wight. It was an incredible weekend – a total gamechanger that put me firmly on the path to Paralympic sailing.
Fast forward 3 years and I was at my very first Olympic Games, in Athens in 2004. I was just 18 and found it quite overwhelming but an absolutely amazing experience. My nerves were not too bad – I think I didn’t fully take it all in that I was really at the Olympic Games. I’d had a lot of experience at World Championships, which helped to give me confidence.
With sailing now dropped from the Paralympics I decided to take on my childhood dream of becoming the first disabled sailor to compete in the Vendée Globe. It is an extraordinary race around the world, solo, non-stop and without assistance.
Training-wise, I always do plenty of physical exercise to keep my strength and fitness up, but with this being a solo race, mental strength is also key and is something which was instilled in me at the Royal Hospital School.
The more solo sailing I do the more I realise how strong and resilient I am and, surprisingly, how much I enjoy my own company. This type of sailing suits my personality and I love it. There are still moments when I can hardly believe what I’m doing but I thrive off a challenge. It’s a battle to get to the start line thanks to the pandemic. Getting sponsorship is challenging but I’m not going to give up on my dream. I’m going to keep pushing forward and doing my best to make it happen in 2024. My motto is ‘Never give up’.