Strong Start For Clark & Hughes as Selection Looms 

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As she sat in hospital for six weeks at the back end of 2009 fighting a mysterious kidney disease, all prospects of London 2012 seemed a very long way off for Penny Clark.

Just four months earlier she had been revelling in the promise of her new partnership with crew Katrina Hughes following the pair’s encouraging ninth place at the 470 Worlds, which came only six weeks after they paired up.  

But without warning everything was put on hold as Clark battled an illness that left her weak and with an obliterated immune system.  

One year on and the picture looks very different indeed for Clark and Hughes; a deserved silver medal and a first ever podium finish together came courtesy of a sparkling performance at the Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta last month and suddenly they go into the spring regattas as the form British women’s 470 team.  

Clark admits it has been a long, hard slog to get back to racing fitness, but now back in the game she has no intention of things sliding again as 2012 selection looms.  

“Kat and I had been really encouraged by how well we gelled at our first Worlds,” she explains.

“To pull out a result like we did having only sailed together for such a short time, we both felt there was some real talent and potential there to be developed.  

“But at the beginning of November I ended up in hospital and it took quite a while to get me sorted out. I’m not very good at doing nothing and come the turn of the year I was climbing the walls to get out on the water. We went to Miami for last year’s OCR but I had no strength and no immune system and was literally able to sail for an hour a day and only in light winds. There was no gym training or anything else and as soon as I got rundown I’d pick up whatever was going.  

“Then while we were in Miami Kat hurt her back and was out of action for six weeks. We finally started sailing together again just before Hyeres in April but it still wasn’t until June/July time that we were at the point of things being normal again and we were training in the gym and out on the water for four or five hours’ a day.  

“What’s happened since then has been amazing really and proved to us we were right to have believed there was genuine potential in our partnership.”  

With training time limited in the months prior to the 2010 season, Clark admits she and Hughes were getting by on their racing instincts alone and although with each regatta results improved – including eighth at the Worlds and sixth at Skandia Sail for Gold – it was boat handling errors that kept letting them down.  

The real turning point came in November when, following a solid two months’ of hard slog on UK waters, the duo went to Australia for a period of warm weather training before and after the Perth International Regatta. Training with some of the World’s top international teams, Clark and Hughes were able to refine their boat handling in testing conditions and pressure situations.  

After a couple of weeks’ rest over Christmas and New Year, the pair were back in the boat for Miami.   It was here all the pieces of the jigsaw really came together for the first time. “Getting on the podium had been a massive priority for us. We wanted it to be at Sail for Gold last year but realistically it was unlikely. We wanted to come out and make a statement this year so to get on the podium at the first regatta of 2011 was huge.  

“We just sailed so consistently across the range of conditions and there wasn’t one race, aside from a black flag disqualification we picked up in race six, where we weren’t in the top 10. Even in race six we were fifth at the time and even the race officer apologised and said it was close!”  

Having been Britain’s representative in the single-handed Laser Radial at Beijing 2008 Clark opted to switch to the double-handed 470 to campaign for 2012, initially pairing up with Saskia Clark.  

When they went their separate ways after the 2009 Europeans, Penny, for a few days at least, pondered a return to the Radial. But it didn’t take very long back on her own to make her realise how much more suited she was to helming the 470 and the call went into to Kat Hughes, who had recently split from her long-term teammate Hannah Mills.  

With 14 years between them – Penny is 35 and Kat 21 – there were a few raised eyebrows initially as to how the pairing would work. But with Kat having enjoyed a lot of double-handed success in the Youth 420 class before moving into 470s, Clark was sure there was plenty they could learn from one another to forge a successful campaign.  

“When I was with Saskia we’d train with Kat and Hannah and I was always very impressed with Kat’s maturity. You could see her promise which is why she was my first port of call. We seemed to gel quickly and what were my strengths were her weaknesses and vice versa.  

“She has a lot of experience of double-handed sailing, which has helped me get more familiar with the boat, but I’d like to think my experience of having done an Olympic campaign before has helped her. We’ve been very open to each other’s suggestions and our communication has been excellent, which you can’t force.”   Clark and Hughes will now review Miami and work out where they are at and what they need to work on through the Palma and Hyeres regattas in March and April in readiness for what is likely to be a decisive summer of competition in terms of 2012 selections.  

They may have the early medal to their credit but Clark and Hughes also have the small matter of Olympic Yngling champion Sarah Ayton and Saskia Clark, who are equally eager to win the 470 race for 2012, to overcome.  

Penny is under no illusions that the pendulum has swung in she and Kat’s favour in the wake of Miami and to start thinking they were now in the driving seat would risk unpicking all the gains they have made in such a short space of time.   

“We know sailors of Sarah and Saskia’s calibre aren’t just going to fall by the wayside; that just isn’t going to happen. We’ve all seen time after time what Sarah is capable of and Saskia’s a superb crew. We have to be ready when they do come into form. But aside from Sarah and Saskia we know that if we want to be standing on the podium at 2012 then we have to be getting on the podium this year. We have had a great start but it is only the start.”