Stephen Thomas Preview
Welsh powerhouse Stephen Thomas believes the British Sonar team are ready to fulfil their potential on home waters as the London 2012 Paralympic Sailing Regatta gets underway at Weymouth and Portland on Saturday (1 September).
Bridgend’s Thomas, a double below the knee amputee as a result of meningitis in 1996, is a former Wales Under 18 international rugby player who started sailing after being spotted in a gym and being invited to try out for a new British Sonar three-person keelboat team for the Athens 2004 Paralympic Games.
Thomas, 35, alongside new teammates John Robertson and Hannah Stodel finished sixth as the newcomers on their Paralympics debut in Greece.
But it was their experience of missing out of a medal in Beijing four years later – replicating their Athens result despite heading into the Games as double World Champions - that has driven the trio heading into London 2012.
Thomas said: “Beijing was hard. We won the Test Event in China in May 2008 but the Games are a completely different animal. There is so much more expectation, so much ‘noise’ involved and you have to try to put that out of your mind and focus what you are there to do. I don’t think we achieved that in China.
“At Beijing we didn’t have a great start. After day one we were in sixth and then that pressure of the Games came on. It was just like ‘We haven’t had a great start we’re not going to win a medal now because we’ve messed up the first day.” But actually it’s a collection of races and the first day is the same as the fourth day in terms of importance. It’s managing that expectation, making sure we’re actually performing to our best every day through the regatta. We’ve learnt a lot in the last four years.
“To come in the top three in the Paralympics will mean everything. We’ve worked 10 years for this and the Paralympic Games is the pinnacle for us. For my friends and family that have supported me through it would be amazing too. To come from being in a hospital bed to being a Paralympics medallist, that would be great for them.”
The Sonar has been in the Paralympics since the first sailing demonstration event took place at Atlanta 1996. 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.
However, Thomas believes the fact Britain’s Paralympic sailors are included as part of the whole British sailing team, with access to exactly the same specialists and sports scientists as the Olympic sailors, gives them the best chance to succeed.
He added: “If you look at any of the gold medallists within the team, you could live your life by their mantra. They will do anything and they sacrifice everything to get a gold medal. They are great people to emulate. We do feel part of the team. There’s a great determination and camaraderie between everyone to be the best team.”
In sailing competitors are classified according to a points system from 1-7, where low points are given to the severely disabled and high points for the less disabled. For the Sonar each crew of three is allowed a maximum of 14 points between them.
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 (two-person keelboat) and Sonar. 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.