ANDY COOPER meets the bright British star of a new coastal Olympic sport who is hoping to make a splash in Paris in 2024.
When Saskia Sills says she grew up in Cornwall, one immediately reasons she is so good at her sport because she hit the surf off the county’s iconic beaches from the get-go, taking to the waters like a natural.
But it’s more nuanced than that. Yes, Saskia did spend many a childhood hour surfing and bodyboarding in the waters off north Cornwall in places such as Mother Ivey’s Bay, Constantine and Harlyn. But her introduction to the world of watersports – and all that has followed in terms of a successful career as an elite IQ Foil windsurfer – came at a rather more inland setting.
For it was at Roadford Lake, a huge reservoir close to Launceston, that Saskia and her siblings – older brother Sam and her identical twin sister Imogen – first got bitten by the bug of high-adrenalin windsurfing on the water.
“Growing up in Cornwall of course we were a family who spent lots of time at the beach,” explains Saskia, 26, “but when I trace back how we first got into windsurfing it was that first visit to Roadford Lake when Sam wanted to try his hand at the sport that first kicked off our interest, which ultimately led us to where we are today.
“Like any younger sister, as soon as I saw Sam start to do something, I wanted to have a go too. I adored what he did and the adventures he was having and wanted to be a part of it.
“The same went for Immy. As sisters we just wanted to get out on the lake too. I don’t think my parents had a lot of choice really…we were that determined to try it out. Nothing would stop us.
“I vividly remember a cold, stormy day at Roadford Lake and I really, really wanted to get out on the water. My Mum said ‘all your friends are getting together for sleepovers, are you sure you want to be here?’. But I was determined – it was all I ever wanted to do.
“It was a space where I felt free. I still do. There is no greater feeling than being out on the water on your board.
For parents Carole and Richard it became clear from when their three children were at an early age that their enthusiasm was backed up by plenty of talent. As Saskia recalls, she took part in her first competitive event, the National Championships, at the age of nine, and in many senses has not looked back since.
Championship after championship followed for Saskia, always competing at the same events as her siblings, in Immy’s case in the same age class. Their prominence as growing talents in the sport really came to the fore at the 2009 Youth World Championships, where Sam won his category, whilst Saskia, then aged 13, took gold in hers, with Immy runner-up.
“I remember thinking as we went into the final races that it could be me or my sister who ended up as world champion,” adds Saskia. “It was fine margins between us in the end – it honestly could have been either of us who was the champion.”
That 2009 win was the springboard for a run of success which saw Saskia eventually win four world titles and also pick up a nomination as BBC Young Sports Personality of the Year.
But if it felt all plain sailing – if you’ll pardon the pun – as she collected title after title, life was about to deal her one of those knockbacks it can be notorious for, as she reveals: “In my final year of A levels I had been feeling really unwell and I was eventually diagnosed with coeliac disease. It was a lesson in how quickly things in your life can change.
“I’d got a place at Bournemouth University to study economic geography and I was determined to go, whilst also continuing with the sport. Those few years were the hardest thing I have ever done. I was juggling so much – my studies, competing in the sport and illness. I was glad to come out the other side intact.”
Upon leaving university a pro career beckoned for Saskia and for that she is grateful for a funding regime which allowed her to continue with her sporting dreams: “We have a great governing body and the money is there to support you and ensure you can compete.”
And compete she did. More than compete, in fact, going on to achieve a Silver Medal at the World Cup Finale in 2019 and the award for British Sailing Breakthrough Performance the same year. Last year she came first in the IQ Foil Open Regatta in Cornwall 2021 and won a bronze medal at the 2021 World Championships.
And although she missed out on the medals at this year’s World Championships in Brest, France, she was struggling with a back injury and is now determinedly working to be fully fit as the qualifying process starts for the dream tournament – the Paris Summer Olympics in 2024.
“There’s a long road ahead to Paris, but that is the dream,” explains Saskia. “To be competing for your country at the Olympics in your chosen sport when it’s the first time it is part of the Games, well, it’s what dreams are made of.”
But for Saskia, her sport is not all about just the medals and the glory. She definitely sees her success as an opportunity to have a voice when it comes to the issues she is passionate about, namely the environment and sustainability.
She is a sustainability ambassador for Childs Farm, the natural skincare business, and an ambassador for The Big Plastic Pledge, both roles she takes extremely seriously.
“I don’t think just being an athlete is acceptable if you have some success,” she affirms. “You have been given a platform and it’s important that you use it to try and speak up and make a difference.
“Everywhere I compete in the world there is plastic in the water. It needs to change and I want to be an agent for that change!”
It might seem a little over the top to suggest that Saskia has the world at her feet but it does feel like that right now, with a pivotal moment in her already successful career looming on the horizon
At heart though, despite the travel and competing around the globe, she is still a Cornish girl and always relishes the return to home shores for some down time and to re-charge.
“If I am walking on one of the north Cornwall beaches, whatever the weather or time of year, there feels like there is something like a healing process going on and my wellbeing improves,” reveals Saskia. “It will always be home to me and it’s the place I always want to come back to.”
A TRAIL OF HONOURS
So far Saskia has achieved the following in the sport:
- Nominee BBC Young Sports Person of The Year 2012
- Nominee ISAF Rolex World Sailor of The Year 2012
- Four times Youth World Champion 2009-2012
- Two times BUCS National Champion 2016-2017
- Silver Medal World Cup Finale 2019
- 9th Senior RSX World Championships 2019
- British Sailing Breakthrough Performance 2019
- 1st IQ Foil Open Regatta, Cornwall 2021
- 3rd World Championships, Lake Silvaplana, Switzerland 2021
WHAT IS IQ FOIL WINDSURFING?
The IQ Foil Class is the new coastal Olympic windsurf class that is preparing for the 2024 Paris Olympic Games. The new class used foiling to make it windsurfing more interesting, faster and give a greater wind range. Foiling gives the sport a whole new dimension of depth, know-how and technicality among competitors.
The IQ Foil class has four different classes. These are men’s, women’s, youth and juniors. These all vary according to their sail size, foil, and board size to suit the riders.
You can find out more about the sport and how to take part here: tinyurl.com/37wtj8rn
You can read about more people involved with the coast and other Coast characters here: coastmagazine.co.uk