London 2012 bronze medallists Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell admit to having unfinished business as their bid to upgrade to Rio 2016 gold gets underway on Monday (12 September).
Epsom’s Rickham and Birrell, who lives in Bournemouth, revealed they had mixed emotions after landing their first two-person SKUD Paralympic silverware four years ago, having won all four World titles between Beijing 2008 and London 2012.
The pair, who head to what is their third Games in Rio, have since added a fifth Worlds crown to their trophy cabinet in 2013, alongside four Worlds silvers, and will be amongst the favourites to repeat their podium achievement from London 2012.
Now Jamaica-born Rickham, who turns 35 this Sunday (11 September), and 30-year-old Birrell, who hails from Knutsford, Cheshire, insist not achieving their home Games goal is fuelling their Rio fire.
Birrell, who was born with cerebral palsy, said: “That bronze was not what we were trying to do in London. That means there is still more to achieve. We’ve won every single gold medal you can except the Paralympic gold so it’s really clear what we are trying to achieve. Why we do what we do every day is to win that.
“I was really upset pre the London podium that I was going to have to stand on the third step. But when you get on the podium, get a medal round your neck with your family there it definitely put a smile on my face, which I was surprised about.”
Rickham, paralysed as a result of shallow diving accident in 1995, continues: “London I saw very much as ‘This is it, we can win a gold medal’. We were looking so much at the big picture of gold when just taking each day as it comes would have probably stood us in better stead. I’m probably a bit more tempered going in to Rio.
“Rio is such a complicated venue. There are going to be days where none of the top people are necessarily at the front of the fleet so I’m trying not to get too excited, trying to go with the flow and live in the present and take each day as it comes.”
In the seven World Championships from 2009 to 2015, the gold medal went to either Rickham and Birrell, or London 2012 champions, Daniel Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch (AUS). But at the 2016 Para World Sailing Championships in Medemblik, new names, Monika Gibes and Piotr Cichocki (POL), emerged at the top of the pile, sailing themselves into Rio podium contention after just over a year of competing together.
Having teamed up in 2007, Rio is set to be Rickham and Birrell's last competitive outing together while, with sailing not currently part of the Paralympic programme for Tokyo 2020, it will be the last Games for at least eight years that anyone has the chance to try to win a Paralympic sailing medal. The Brits think this will mean everyone has a heightened focus on trying to claim a Rio podium spot.
Rickham said: "Everybody’s going to be gunning for it, that’s the reality of the situation. We’ve been at the top end of the fleet for a long while. The way I look at it is we came fifth in Beijing, we came third in London, so clearly the natural progression has to be first this time, doesn’t it?!”
Birrell added: “It’s going to be really close in Rio. The Poles did a great job winning at the Worlds and the Australians have done really well this four-year cycle too, but I believe on our day if we deliver what we can there is no reason why it can’t be gold.”
The SKUD 18 class is scheduled to contest an 11 race series, with two races per day from Monday 12 – Friday 16 September before the final series race, after which the medals will be awarded, on Saturday 17 September.
To follow Rickham and Birrell’s fortunes at Rio 2016 visit www.rya.org.uk/Rio2016
, follow @BritishSailing
on Twitter and like us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/britishsailingteam