When Beijing 2008 Olympian Penny Clark started campaigning in the women’s 49erFX class, she realised that the desire to beat her rivals on the racetrack was starting to be outweighed by the satisfaction to be gained from helping them instead.
Unexpectedly, Penny had discovered a new ambition and career pathway, despite having previously vowed to never become a coach. Now an integral part of the British Sailing Team as a coach rather than an athlete, Penny has never looked back.
“I had just started my FX campaign and there were two things that happened at the same time,” she explains. “I realised I wasn’t doing what I needed to do to be a successful Olympic athlete because I wanted to spend more time at home. I also noticed that instead of treating my fellow squad members as competitors, I was actually spending time mentoring them and finding that more rewarding than beating them on the water!
“So it was a really nice conclusion to my Olympic programme because I realised that I was done and dusted with that and had moved on with my life but also I’d found this new passion. I’d always said I wasn’t going to be a sailing coach but then I was suddenly enjoying working with these athletes so it became a natural progression.”
While Penny had been competing in the then Laser Radial, now the ILCA 6, campaigning on the Olympic classes international circuit, she had been in the Navy and had naturally assumed she would return to either that or an engineering career.
“But in the final throes of Olympic campaigning I left the Navy and it dawned on me that I didn’t actually want to go back to being an engineer. I loved my life as an Olympic athlete travelling the world and coaching was a way to continue being a part of that, and I realised I could do a job that I would enjoy as opposed to a job to just pay the mortgage.”
Born in Wolverhampton, Penny grew up sailing on lakes in the Midlands at Himley Hall SC and Chelmarsh SC, racing Optimists and Toppers. Later moving to Lee-on-the-Solent, she represented Team GB in the Laser Radial at the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing and has also campaigned in 470s as well as 49erFXs. A member of Stokes Bay SC, Penny currently races an International Moth and 505.
This progression through the sport and a wide variety of classes enables Penny to now draw on her own experiences of training and competing to support the next generation.
Penny’s journey post-Olympic classes sailing saw her initially taking the RYA Race Coach courses to equip her with the basic know-how for running sessions.
An Athlete Coach course run by UK Sport then provided additional tools as she ventured further into her new career. The RYA also provides Continuous Professional Development for its coaches and one of the most appealing parts of the job for Penny is that there is always something new to learn.
CPD includes having a one-to-one ‘coach developer’ who is available to support coaches to improve their skills, so one area Penny has explored is building relationships with athletes and empowering sailors, so they have more control over their training sessions.
Having coached the top athletes in the British Sailing Team ILCA squad, Penny now works with the BST 49erFX crews aiming to qualify and compete at the 2024 Games.
She adds: “I’m also currently coaching the transitional ILCA 6 squad of 18 to 19-year-olds and remembering how to get that fun element back into their sailing and looking at how to encourage their own questioning and inquisitive nature within the sport. Coaching is all about different boats, different people, different classes. It’s never boring.”
The most exciting aspect of coaching for Penny is supporting sailors to translate their qualities into strengths and witnessing on a personal level each small individual gain.
As Penny explains: “You’ll see someone getting challenged and they’ll suddenly make a breakthrough, and you see their face light up with the realisation of what they’ve achieved. It might be sailing related such as downwind technique, or sometimes it’s on the campaign management side of things – they’ll start becoming more professional and changing their approach and you can guide them through that too, so it’s the life skills as well that you see people pick up.”
Her proudest moment to date has been working with ILCA 7 sailors Dan Whiteley and Sam Whaley in the run up to the 2021 worlds in Barcelona, which saw them achieving personal bests of 8th and top Brit and 15th overall respectively. Penny’s satisfaction derived not only from the results but from their whole journey to get there.
She says: “The individuals that stood before me going into that event, I had so much belief in them and their abilities because I knew where they’d come from and all the effort they’d put in. It was great that the results came as well because they absolutely deserved it. But if the world had stopped on day one before the first race, I was really proud of where those lads had got to and what they had achieved.”
Penny was brought up with the idea that sailing would not lead to a lifelong career, unlike a ‘proper job’, a view she says is probably shared by many other people. "Hopefully we can change that mindset so people realise these possibilities do exist to have an amazing career and be involved in the sport that you love and get paid to do it!
“It’s important to me that young sailors see where the sport can take them and understand that you can have a career in coaching and it can be really fun and rewarding.”
To find out more about becoming a race coach, visit the RYA Race Coaching hub, which has lots of information about qualifications and all the latest bookable RYA Race Coach Level 2 and 3 courses. For RYA Home Countries, visit RYA Northern Ireland, RYA Scotland and RYA Cymru Wales.
There is also an Improve My Coaching hub for existing race coaches and instructors with access to a variety of resources, including:
To register for free with the RYA Learning Network, email: firstname.lastname@example.org