Six British Paralympic sailors will be battling for Rio 2016 glory when the regatta gets under way on Monday, 12 September.
The event, hosted at the Marina da Gloria, Rio De Janeiro, could be the last Paralympic sailing competition as the International Paralympic Committee has dropped it from the line-up of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games – a move that has caused outrage around the world.
Sailing has been a Paralympic sport since 2000: however, it was a demonstration sport at Atlanta 1996. Britain has gold medal contenders in all three Paralympic sailing classes.
Helena Lucas, 2.4m keelboat
Helena, 41, made history when she won Britain’s first Paralympic gold medal at the London 2012 Games, becoming the first female winner of the male-dominated 2.4mR class.
Helena, who was born without thumbs and has limited extension in her arms, is in the unusual position of having taken part in both Olympic and Paralympic campaigns. Having sailed 470s since 1997, she moved into the Paralympic 2.4mR in 2003 before making her Paralympic Games debut at Beijing 2008, finishing seventh.
Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell, Skud-18 keelboat
Five-time World Champions and bronze medallists at London 2012, Alex and Niki have what it takes to win gold in Brazil.
A shallow diving accident at the age of 13 while on a family holiday in Jamaica left Alex with C5/6 tetraplegia – a severe spinal cord injury.
Niki, who was born with cerebral palsy, previously campaigned in the 470 Olympic class with his brother, Christian, before moving into the Paralympic 2.4mR one-person boat for a while.
John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Stephen Thomas, Sonar keelboat
John, Hannah and Steve narrowly missed out on bronze at London 2012 due to an off-the-water penalty imposed by the International Jury. The trio go to their fourth Paralympic Games as reigning World Champions.
Former RAF mechanic John was disabled as a result of a motorbike accident in 1994.
Hannah, who was born without a right forearm, became Britain’s first female sailing Paralympian when she and her Sonar teammates made their Paralympic debut at the Athens 2004 Games.
Former ice sledge hockey player Steve, who is a double below-the-knee amputee after suffering from meningitis in 1996, has the unusual distinction of having represented Britain at both the winter and summer Paralympic Games.
Sonar sailors focused on Rio silverware swansong
Sunderland’s John Robertson, West Mersea-based Hannah Stodel, and Steve Thomas, from Bridgend, head to their fourth Games together, focused on landing their first Paralympic silverware and bidding to lay to rest the ghosts of London 2012 where an off-the-water penalty denied them a bronze medal.
The trio previously won back-to-back World titles in 2005 and 2006, and, 10 years after landing their first crown, they returned to the top of the Worlds podium at the 2015 Para World Sailing Championships in Melbourne last December, before following that up with silver at the 2016 event in Medemblik, the Netherlands, in May.
Stodel, 31, revealed that even though is sailing not currently part of the Paralympic programme for Tokyo 2020, it would have been unlikely that she and her teammates would have campaigned for a fifth Games anyway, meaning Rio will be their competitive Sonar swansong after 14 years together as a team.
Robertson, 44, said: ‘Winning the Worlds last year was awesome, it was our focus for the year. We had worked to get everything right, focusing on psychology and getting the boat fast enough. The racing wasn’t easy, these things aren’t easy otherwise everyone would do it, but we were digging deep all week and at the end we won by a point. We fought all the time, we were fighting for every place.’
‘We had a tough year going into the Worlds,’ Thomas, 39, added. ‘We came out on top in a few areas we had been working on and showed good mental toughness we had been slightly lacking if we’re honest. That will stand us in good stead in Rio. If we deliver on our ability there is a good chance we will be on the podium.’
Stodel agreed: ‘If we get onto the Rio podium I’ll probably be like ‘oh, thank god. It’s finally happened!’ We’ve been working for four Games to try to come away with a medal. We’ve got to walk away with a medal, it’s everything we’ve worked for. We’ve proved we can do it time and time again at Worlds, we can definitely do it.’
Rio lived up to its reputation as one of the hardest places in the world to sail during last month’s Olympics, and with the breeze affected by the mountains and cityscape around Rio combined with tricky tide and current, the Paralympic sailors are going to have to prove their adaptability in all conditions to taste success.
But with the British Team sailors having spent between 60-80 days in Rio during this Paralympic cycle, the Sonar team can’t wait to show it was time well spent while revelling in the unique atmosphere of Brazil.
Stodel said: ‘It’s Rio, crazy things are going to happen and being in a good place to handle that is going to be key. We’ve done everything we can, now it’s about keeping our heads together, having a good series and rolling with the punches. Even when stuff’s going wrong, as a team we know how to handle it and we will.’
Thomas added: ‘The people in Rio are so amazing. You see people out on the water or just running and being active outdoors in the evenings. There aren’t many places in the UK you would see the streets and the beaches lined with people being active at that time. That tells me they love sport and people will embrace the Games.’
Unfinished Business Spurs Rickham and Birrell in Rio
London 2012 bronze medallists Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell admit to having unfinished business as their bid to upgrade to Rio 2016 gold gets under way on Monday.
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, added: ‘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.’
Lucas bids for historic golden repeat in Rio
London 2012 gold medallist Helena Lucas admits the chance to make history by becoming the first person to ever defend a Paralympic sailing title is fuelling her Rio 2016 ambitions.
In topping the one-person 2.4mR podium four years ago, Southampton-based Lucas became the first British Paralympic gold medallist since sailing became a full programme sport at Sydney 2000, while as the only female in the 2012 2.4mR fleet, she also became the class’ first female Paralympic medallist.
The Surrey-born 41-year-old, who was awarded an MBE in the 2013 New Year Honours, was the first British athlete (Olympic or Paralympic) to be selected for Rio 2016 in April 2015 and heads to what is her third Paralympics having added three more Worlds medals to her trophy cabinet since her London triumph.
Lucas, who was born with no thumbs and limited extension in her arms, describes winning gold at her home Games as “the ultimate pinnacle” of her career. But as post-Rio retirement looms, and with sailing not currently part of the Paralympic programme for Tokyo 2020, she wants to go out on the highest high possible.
Lucas said: ‘What drives me and inspires me is the chance of winning another gold medal and defending my title, which at the moment is something no Paralympic sailor has managed to do.
‘For London we felt it all came together just at the right time, but there was still a lot more we could do and there was more to come. Rio was another realistic gold medal opportunity.
‘When I was standing on the podium at London 2012 the first emotion was relief. Years and years of hard work has gone in to it and finally you’ve achieved it. It took ages for it to sink in and it sort of felt like somebody else had won it!
‘Hopefully if I have the opportunity to stand on the top step in Rio it will feel quite different. It would be very emotional, especially as this is the last chance for Paralympic sailing to win medals. It’s certainly my last chance of winning a medal.’
Lucas added: ‘I’m really pleased with my kit and in most conditions I’ve got some really good speed, which is really useful and gets me out of trouble a few times!
‘The standard of the 2.4mR class has always been high, but it’s got even higher. It’s now quite easy to make a couple of mistakes and find yourself in eighth or ninth, but in the past you could get away with a couple of mistakes and still be fourth or fifth.
‘I think I have the determination and attitude of never giving up. Every single point counts and every boat you can pass counts. Focusing on taking one place at a time and working my way up through the fleet. That was certainly my attitude for London 2012 and it’s what enabled me to win gold.’
How to follow the action
All three of the Paralympic sailing classes, the 2.4mR, SKUD 18 and Sonar, are scheduled to contest an 11 race series, with two races per day from Monday 12 to Friday 16 September before the final series race, after which the medals will be awarded, on Saturday 17 September.
Channel 4 have the rights to the Paralympic Games and will be beginning their opening ceremony broadcast at 9pm tonight. Clare Balding and Adam Hills host.
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