World Champion windsurfer tells how her twin sister was the inspiration behind her return from career-threatening injury
A ninth-place finish at the World Windsurfing Championships, a silver medal at the World Cup series and finishing her last two competitions as the No 1 British woman - it's safe to say 2019 has been a stellar year for Saskia Sills.
Yet, even at the tender age of 23, she has already experienced the polar opposite, where injury and illness threatened to sink a career that had already registered a world championship when she was just 13.
“Everyone knows that staying at the top in sport is probably the hardest place to be,” says Sills. “Winning is great but staying at the top is extremely difficult because you become the person to beat. I knew from a young age that it is very unrealistic to stay at the top for your whole life, there would be down periods. But I wasn’t expecting it to get quite as down as it did get.”
This down was not limited to, but included a diagnosis of Compartment Syndrome of the Forearms, Coeliac disease and appendicitis. Months of rehabilitation, recovery and training to get back on the water became the norm for Sills, and she found it the most difficult challenge in her career so far.
“There is no way to describe it. For me, as soon as your friend or team-mate gets injured, my heart feels heavy for them. Windsurfing to me is an escape. If I’m having a bad day and if it is supposed to be a rest day, I know that if I surf in the water I will feel better again. Having that taken away from you and not being able to do the thing that makes you feel confident, is the hardest thing.
“There are very hard days when you just want to scream and injuries take a long time in order to get better which makes you very frustrated. Another aspect is that while it’s great that we have funding from UK Sport, it also adds pressure knowing that you have to achieve the targets set with medals to keep the funding. So injuries are a very complicated thing and it is not really understood in terms of how difficult it is to come back from a major illness or injury.”
At moments like this, people often speak about how support from others got them through the toughest of times and Sills is no different.
It helped that that support came from another top level windsurfer, what made it even more special is that it came from her sister and identical twin Imogen.
Imy, as Saskia calls her, who is now in Norway coaching their windsurfers and who also coaches junior windsurfers internationally, had her career cut short in 2016 because of a debilitating ankle injury which did not improve despite two bouts of surgery.
Says Saskia: “We absolutely never saw each other as competitors. Imy and I, we never wanted to beat each other. From a very young age we would be out on the water together, helping each other and we would be giving each other advice. I think us being together helped us a lot with our confidence, our ability and it is so nice to have someone else out in the water with you. Being together really helped and I always say, if you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together.”
As with all relationships between siblings, Saskia and Imogen’s bond has changed over time through ups and downs but the support for each other at every step has been unwavering. This unflappable support came to the fore when both had to go through injuries.
Saskia said: “When we were at secondary school it was a really special time that we spent together. As we went onto our late teens we went to university and didn’t really understand how difficult that would be for us. As girls in an elite sporting environment, and as identical twins who are extremely close, we had no idea how going to two different universities would affect us, even if we thought we were ready for it.
“Imy then unfortunately got injured in 2016 with an ankle injury. That ended her career which was a really difficult time. We both felt that a lot at the time and it was so sad to see Imy broken with her ankle and she had to go through two surgeries. It was heartbreaking for me because I had lost my training partner. My sister lost her identity as a windsurfer.
“But that got us back together again. When we were both injured, we realised how much we really needed each other and how much we wanted to be together. There is one moment in particular which I remember.
“When I had my appendicitis, which was just after my first gym session back from another lay off, I remember getting home from the hospital. Imy had collected a few things that she knew I loved like flowers and chocolate milk. That was a defining moment for me, knowing that I will always have support and even though I can’t do my sport, someone is there to support me and wants the best for me.”
Other than providing crucial support, Saskia also acknowledges the recent impact of Imogen on her windsurfing from a technical point of view. Saskia attributes her recent success to better decision making and remembers fondly how Imogen came to coach her when her official coach and training partner were away in Japan. This was just a little while after Saskia had won silver in the World Cup series.
“She was saying, ‘Saskia how did you manage to win a silver medal doing that?’,” Saskia said. “We spent about three hours in the water that day, attacking over and over again. She was videoing and analysing and got my tacks, which is a turn, from 12 seconds to four seconds, and that is absolutely a huge factor in Lake Garda [where the World Championship was held] because it is such a speed race and you need to attack the turns.”
All this support and guidance helped her to achieve great things in the World Championships in Italy this year, as well as better decision making which has improved over time. This is all coming in handy for her preparation for the Olympic Games in 2024, where Saskia hopes to qualify and make history of her own.
Speaking about her next steps in preparation for those Games, she said: “We say you don’t qualify for the Olympics the year before, you start to do it four or five years before. If I can get good results now and continue that, it’s absolutely perfect for my journey to Paris 2024.
“We will see what happens. The last five years have been nothing smooth, there’s a lot of time to go. It’s not just about the Olympics though, for me it’s about the journey and the small stepping stones along the way.”
As Saskia took time to reflect upon her journey so far, she had one piece of advice for any athlete going through a difficult injury.
“If you really really want to do it, and even if it feels impossible, do not give up. Absolutely do not give up.”