Alexandra Rickham Preview
Quadruple World champion sailor Alexandra Rickham, believes “gold is definitely a possibility,” as she and teammate Niki Birrell bid to convert Worlds success into Paralympic glory when the London 2012 Paralympic Sailing Regatta gets underway at Weymouth and Portland on Saturday (1 September).
Epsom-based Rickham and Birrell, from Knutsford, had been sailing together for less than 12 months when they made their Paralympic debut in the SKUD-18 (two-person keelboat) event at Beijing 2008, finishing fifth. But the pair have dominated the class since then, winning every World Championship over the past four years.
The 30-year-old Rickham, who is C5/6 tetraplegic, was first introduced to sailing while rehabbing from the diving accident which left her in a wheelchair in 1995. Yet it wasn’t until studying for her Masters in Environmental Technology in London 10 years later the Jamaican-born athlete started taking sailing seriously.
Meanwhile, Manchester-born Birrell, 26, who was born with cerebral palsy, previously campaigned in the 470 Olympic class with his brother, Christian, before moving into the Paralympic 2.4 metre one-person boat for a while.
When the pair were introduced in late 2007 it was the start of what they hope will end up being a golden partnership on home waters.
Alex explains: “I’ve always loved Watersports. When I first had my accident I was in rehab in Miami, there you do rehab really quickly, like three months. Within the first month I was swimming, within two months playing tennis and I got the chance to go sailing at Shake-a-Leg Miami, which is one of the largest adaptive watersports facilities in the USA. I loved it, I crashed the boat a few times but it was good fun.
“Sailing’s not a big sport in Jamaica; growing up I rode horses. Equestrianism is quite a feel-orientated sport and quite technical. Sailing is quite similar because it’s all about feel. The settings can be fine but you have to feel the boat is going right. It seemed to fit really and I was lucky to have the opportunity I did so I just went for it.
“I think we can win gold. We have all the characteristics and have gone through the processes. We’ve got four World Championships so we know gold is definitely a possibility but we still have to pull it together for the week. The regattas we do well at are the ones we enjoy most.”
Rickham, who steers the boat, and Birrell, who controls the sails, believe their strongest competition is likely to come from the Australian team of Dan Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch at Weymouth and Portland, although the American and Canadian boats are also very strong medal contenders.
But Rickham, whose family are flying over from Jamaica and the USA to watch her in action, believes she and Birrell can maintain the standards they have set for themselves to gain the biggest prize of their career.
She added: “I’ll probably feel like I want to throw up heading into the first race! It’s just that big rush of adrenalin as the clock’s counting down. But I’m looking forward to it. It’s on waters we know and hopefully the familiarity will calm things down.”
The SKUD made its Paralympic debut at Beijing 2008. One sailor must have a more severe level of disability (equivalent to a class 1 or 2 on a scale of 1-7) while the other must have a minimum level of disability that prevents them competing on equal terms with able-bodied sailors. One crew member must be female.
The first Paralympic sailing demonstration event took place at Atlanta 1996 in the Sonar three-person keelboat (plus reserve). The British crew of Andy Cassell, Kevin Curtis, Tony Downs and Ian Harrison won gold. But a Paralympic medal has eluded Britain since sailing joined the full Paralympic programme at Sydney 2000.
The London 2012 Paralympic Sailing Regatta runs from Saturday 1 September to Thursday 6 September.
There are three Paralympic classes – the 2.4mR (one-person keelboat), SKUD-18 and Sonar (three-person keelboat). Each class completes a series of 11 races. The sailors accrue points depending on where they finish in a race (ie: 1st = 1 point etc). The boat with the lowest overall score at the end of the series wins gold.
Two races per day are scheduled for each class from 1 to 5 September, with one race for each class on the final day (6 September). Racing is scheduled to start at 11am daily.