Niki Birrell Preview
As an eight-year-old growing up in a motor sport mad family, Niki Birrell wished his dad had bought him and his brother a go-kart not a boat.
But 18 years later the quadruple World Champion sailor couldn’t be more grateful for that decision as he and sailing partner, Alexandra Rickham, 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).
Birrell, from Knutsford, and Epsom-based Rickham 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.
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.
Meanwhile, 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. When she was introduced to Birrell in late 2007 the pair’s Paralympic journey began.
Niki explains: “My dad did 20 years of motor sport so when I was really little there were always motor cars and racing cars in our garage and we were always going off to Brands Hatch and Oulton Park to watch Dad race. We always had the television on, watching Senna against Mansell and Prost when I was a kid.
“My granddad used to have a boat and Dad did that on holidays and thought we might like it. I’m a pretty competitive person, but because I’ve got a little bit of cerebral palsy I wasn’t too good at football and rugby, I wanted a sport where I could win against able-bodied people. It was either boats or cars. I suppose luckily we didn’t buy a go-kart, we bought a boat and I’ve loved it ever since.”
Birrell, who controls the sails, and Rickham, who steers the boat, 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.
With his beloved Manchester City claiming a historic Premiership title earlier this year, lifelong Blue Birrell is hoping that 2012 will end up being a very special year.
He added: “I was so excited when City won the Premiership it was unbelievable. Now we’ve got to try to do our bit. I’m really excited to try to get a gold medal, not just for me but for Alex, the team and my family most of all. As a kid you can’t go sailing unless your family support it so it’s 85% down to them why we’re here now.”
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 Games 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.