“It’s all about next year!" says triple World Champ Rickham 

Niki Birrell and Alexandra Rickham more features

Ask Alexandra Rickham if five years ago she could have possibly imagined herself being one half of the most consistent, and arguably most feared, SKUD team on the planet and she just laughs.  

But that is exactly where Alexandra is at after she and trusty Skandia Team GBR sidekick, Niki Birrell, captured their third successive IFDS World title at the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy last week.  

Although first being introduced to sailing while rehabbing from the diving accident which left her paralysed and in a wheelchair in 1995, it wasn’t until studying for her Masters in Environmental Technology at Imperial College, London 10 years later that Jamaican-born Alexandra started to take her sailing seriously.  

For eight months she trained to helm in the then new SKUD class while studying, before in late 2007 she was introduced to Birrell, and in a shotgun wedding style scenario the pair finished fifth at Beijing 2008, less than 12 months after pairing up.  

With everything happening at whirlwind pace, the pair could never have envisaged that in the years that followed they would become not only one of the most successful boats in the Skandia Team GBR ranks, but also one of the most likeable and entertaining teams around, as their brother-and-sister type banter is as amusing as it is omnipresent.  

Yet when it comes to competition, in each other they have found a kindred spirit, and with London 2012 looming large, winning Paralympic Games gold on their home waters is the common bond which drives them.  

“Could I have pictured this five years ago?” Alexandra ponders, as she sits dockside having just landed that third World crown with a day to spare. “No, not a chance!  

“We probably went into the last Paralympic Games a little bit naive and maybe hoped for a bit more than we should have. We’ve both really assessed exactly what our strengths and weaknesses are since then and the support staff we have around us makes our campaign. It’s all those people who back you up, that make sure you are able to go out there and compete, it’s really not just us, there are a lot of people we’re very grateful to.”  

Victory with a day to spare may appear on paper to have simply been a case of turning up and the title was theirs for the British duo, but in the biggest SKUD fleet ever to grace an IFDS Worlds, coupled with some fierce competition from particularly the Australian and USA teams, resilience was definitely the order of the week for Rickham and Birrell.  

Never was that better highlighted than during the first race of day two.   After their spinnaker sheet got caught round the spinnaker pole hindering their ability to hoist their kite downwind, the pair kept fighting hard to ensure that although their score for that race was inevitably going to be bigger than they would have liked, it would not be so big that it could have much more significant implications in the overall standings come the end of the regatta.  

The eighth place from that race ultimately proved to be as bad as it got for the pair, yet Rickham says with the strength in depth of the field they could never risk another race going the same way.  

“The Australians had three boats who are all contenders, we already knew they were going to be quite difficult, and the two US boats could never be discounted. Jen French and Jean-Paul Creignou especially came back in the last two days of the event firing some really low scores and putting a lot of pressure on us. The Canadians didn’t really get fully up-to-speed over the week but we know that they will be there come the Paralympics next year, or at least at the Worlds in Florida next January.  

“Niki and I have to just make sure that at every opportunity we can up our game and that we get as much racing in as possible. Some of the other contenders haven’t maybe gone to as many events as possible, whereas I think we’ve laid everything on the line and tried to make sure we can turn up to as many events as possible and get the racing experience.”  

Nowhere is that racing experience more invaluable than on the waters Weymouth and Portland, which will host the 2012 Paralympic sailing regatta next September.  

With Mother Nature throwing the full gamut of conditions at the sailors over the course of the Worlds – from practically being becalmed on day one, to torrential rain and tricky, fluky breezes in midweek to the powerful gusting winds at the tail-end of the event – Alexandra admits all the fleets couldn’t have asked for a better experience of what the venue can be about.  

“The venue performed brilliantly for the Worlds, it was an amazing week of racing. I think very few venues across the world are able to offer that range we had. The access at Weymouth and Portland is amazing; we train here all the time, even the ladies in the cafeteria always know what’s going on with us! We love it here and it’s going to be amazing when it’s hosting the Games.”  

However, for all their podium-topping success over the past five years, which included also winning the unofficial 2008 Paralympic Test Event in Qingdao, like any perfectionists the pair are still looking for the cracks in their performances in a bid to iron out any errant imperfections before they run the risk of them thwarting the ultimate goal; 2012 gold.

“It’s all about next year,” Alexandra added. “We can see massive areas that we need to make gains from our Worlds performance. This has been a nice warm-up, and obviously we’re more than happy to be able to walk away with the title, but we want the gold medal next year, that’s more important.”  

With that she chats happily for a while longer before departing back up to the Academy building, with the promise of a celebratory drink to look forward to, as the latest doubtless enthralling chapter of the Alexandra and Niki show starts to play out.