Teenage sensation Matilda Nicholls continues to make waves as one of the rising stars of British sailing. We caught up with the winner of the 2019 TASS Stars Most Potential award as a breakthrough season nears its conclusion.

TASS: Take us through your sailing year to date.

Matilda Nicholls: The season started in April with the youth nationals and I won that. It was the ideal start. It was pretty cool to claim the title and it meant I qualified to represent GB in the youth world championships. It’s like a mini Olympics with one boy and one girl from each nation. The European Championships – an Under 19 event – was my first competition following my A Levels and I finished eighth there. Then I headed for the worlds and my aim was to medal – in the end I finished fifth. It came down to the last race and to finish outside the top three was tough to take. The frustration I felt there carried over into the Laser Radial Youth World Championships a week later.

Failing to medal a week earlier ultimately gave me that extra edge and I went on to win the title. But it wasn’t all plain sailing – in the penultimate race of 12 I capsized and saw my boat drifting off into the distance. That was quite intense!

Matilda winning the Laser Radial Youth World Championships in Canada earlier this year.


TASS: Is there more to come before the end of the year?

MN: I’ve got a busy end to the season. The Italian Nationals are this month and I’ve decided to compete in the Under 21 World Championships in Croatia in October. I’m moving into that age group next year so it will be good experience and give me an idea of what I need to do to reach the next level.

TASS: With your A Levels in the bag what are your plans education-wise?

MN: I’m having a year out of education before I start university in Exeter in 2020. But I wouldn’t describe it as a year off. I’m using the time to sail more often and to focus on my fitness. Senior sailors are top athletes and improving my fitness is a big goal for the next 12 months. I’m hoping to compete against more of the leading sailors in the world more often and I’ve got two full years at Under 21 level. By the end of that cycle I’d hope to medal again.

TASS: Has education always been at the forefront of your mind?

MN: Education has always been important to me. I studied History, French and Psychology at A Level and I’ll be starting my Psychology degree next year. When I started studying Psychology at A Level I just fell in love with the subject. I wanted to learn more and, at the same time, choosing to become a full-time sailor is a daunting prospect.

I’ve always enjoyed the combination of school and sailing and doing both means I have to be very organised. It’s good discipline.

I’m sure that starting university will make me even more organised. And I know I will need a degree in the future.

TASS: How have you benefitted from TASS support?


TASS has allowed me to learn more about sports psychology and that, in turn, has helped my sailing and my racing.

In the middle of a race your head can be in a very different place and the psychology behind that is really interesting. The other aspect of TASS support that’s made a real difference is strength and conditioning. As I say, improving my fitness is a big goal and the S&C has helped me go from being pretty feeble to having some kind of strength! I’ve still got some way to go though.

TASS: Is mental strength just as important as physical ability for sailors?

MN: It’s so important to be mentally focused in my sport. I’m in a boat, on my own, for hours on end and understanding the psychological side of things makes me more adaptable. I have to be mentally prepared every day, before every race and know how to deal with my emotions. You can’t allow the way you feel to affect the next day’s racing. If I do perform poorly I don’t look at it in a negative way – I use that experience to work out how I can perform better. You can’t always win and it’s important to accept that. But you can always improve.


TASS: When were you bitten by the sailing bug?

MN: My dad was a keen sailor and so was my grandfather. I probably started sailing when I was four and that was the year we moved to Bermuda. I started sailing properly over there when I was eight and we came back to the UK when I was 12 or 13. That’s when I moved up to the Laser class.

TASS: What would you say to young people considering a future in sailing?

MN: I’d encourage anyone and everyone to give sailing a go. It’s so much fun and you become part of a really tight community. You meet so many friends for life. Of course, it helps if you love the water – which I do! And no two races are ever the same. The conditions are always changing and I love that challenge.

TASS: How do you wind down as a dual career athlete?

MN: Away from my sailing and my academic work I ‘relax’ by cycling. There’s nothing better in the summer than being out in the countryside on my bike. Otherwise, I try to spend as much time with my friends as possible. If I do have a weekend off that’s what I’ll be doing. Free weekends are very precious.