Fluke Free Campaign for Team Rickham Birrell 

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As two-time World Champions, and the only boat in your class within Skandia Team GBR, less than two years out from an Olympic Games, you could be forgiven for feeling confident that your selection was pretty much a done deal.

But just try telling that to SKUD helm Alexandra Rickham.  

Still only three years after pairing up in the Paralympic two-person keelboat Rickham and Niki Birrell consolidated their position among the World’s SKUD elite this year when, for the second season running, they won IFDS World gold.  

Add to that  a Skandia Sail for Gold Regatta silver and Sail Sydney victory and it’s been a pretty tidy haul for the likeable pair this year.  

Most Skandia Team GBR sailors have started turning all their attentions to the 2012 selections which will dominate their thoughts next year, and from the outside Rickham and Birrell look as odds on as anyone to claim a much-vaunted spot in the London 2012 Paralympic Team.  

But having themselves claimed a place in the 2008 Paralympic team despite joining forces less than a year before the Games, Rickham refuses to take anything for granted.  

She said: “The fact we swooped in at the last minute for Beijing is always in the backs of our minds. Next year will be the telltale year because 2007 was the telltale for us. You can’t assume you have a right to be selected, we think we are earning the right to be selected with our performances but you cannot rest on your laurels.  

“We need to be that bit more prepared than anyone else could possibly be and that means running a really rounded, professional campaign where we take advantage of all the specialist resources and advice available to us through being part of Skandia Team GBR.”   

The Rickham/Birrell partnership of 2011 is almost unrecognisable from the two wide-eyed wannabes that came from nowhere to finish fifth on their shock Paralympic debut in Beijing.  

Rickham admits that having two World titles under their belts has certainly propelled them to the forefront of their rivals’ concerns, but that the fleet is so tight sitting back and basking in the success they have had is not an option.  

In their bid to run an even more streamlined, business-like campaign, the duo have worked with a new coach, Ian Clingan, over the past year and his renowned fastidiousness for attention to detail is rubbing off.   Winning the Worlds for the second time in two years - emphatically claiming the title with day to spare in Medemblik in July – was 2010 job done for Rickham, who wanted to show the rest of the fleet their first title, won in a smaller field the previous year, was no fluke.  

Yet it was at Skandia Sail for Gold a month later that the Brits learned arguably their biggest lesson of the season and it was a lesson that was to shape the rest of their year.  

Rickham explains: “The breeze was on and we weren’t able to compete with the Australians Daniel Fitzgibbon and Rachael Cox which concerned us. We still finished second but it was a wake-up call for us. It had been a light Worlds, which confirmed to us we were strong in those conditions but we needed to find bigger gains in heavier winds as the breeze does get up in Weymouth, and if selected, those are the conditions we could face in 2012.  

“We were lucky enough to win flights for our team through the British Airways Great Briton Scheme and with that we were given an amazing opportunity to fly down under for a few weeks.  

“During the time in Australia we feel we have already made some important gains in terms of understanding more about the rig in  bigger breeze  and spending as much time as we can above our comfort zone so that even if conditions change midway through an event we don’t feel fazed by it and are prepared.  

The British duo’s Sail Sydney victory, in which they triumphed over Fitzgibbon and Cox in heavier breezes suggests they made the right call.  

For Alex there is also an added spin-off of being in Oz, apart from escaping the British winter that is.   She continued: “The boats and sails are made out here and I’m going to spend some time with some of these guys to develop a bit of relationship with them and get the boat to how we need it to be. The masts are made in the UK so in the past it has been a bit of a push-pull situation trying to get the boats together so being able to see it come together first-hand will be really valuable.  

“The technical stuff is much more Niki’s side of things; he is more experienced than me and also being the crew his technical knowledge needs to be bang on. But I do a lot of the ordering of parts and because my mobility is more restricted than Niki’s I can give very specific feedback on what tweaks we need to be made.”  

Rickham and Birrell will compete in the opening round of the 2011 ISAF Sailing World Cup at Sail Melbourne this week (12-18 December) with the Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta at the end of January next on their agenda.  

After Miami the pair will decide the direction for their programme for the rest of the year. Rickham will, however, be continuing her crusade to recruit more European SKUD crews onto the circuit to get another Europe-based ISAF Sailing World Cup event on the SKUD racing calendar.  

What she does know is that with next year’s Worlds at Weymouth and Portland in July also acting an unofficial Paralympic test event the pair are desperate stamp their authority on the 2012 venue while completing a Worlds hat-trick.  

“With Skandia Sail for Gold also the month before the Worlds it’s a great opportunity for us to really apply the pressure with a year to go and see how we deal with it. The aim is to win the Worlds again and it will be good to basically be able to treat that event as a Paralympics dress rehearsal.  

“We may have been the World Champions for the past two years but we don’t think for a minute we’re secure as the top crew. There is a lot of jousting at the top end of the fleet but I do think we’re seen as the ones that other crews keep an eye out for. We have to make sure that we keep turning that screw because we don’t want to give anyone else the chance to take our place for 2012.”

 

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