SKUD - British sailors Niki Birrell and Alex Rickham
Members of the British Paralympic Sailing Squad for the 2008 Games in September passed their first test on Paralympic waters in Qingdao, China, winning two gold medals to top the medal table at the IFDS Qingdao International Regatta on Thursday - Gold for Sonar crew of John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas, and the SKUD pairing of Niki Birrell and Alex Rickham.
The five-day regatta – the one and only test event for the Paralympic classes sailors ahead of the Games in September – saw the Sonar crew of John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas, and the SKUD pairing of Niki Birrell and Alex Rickham come out on top against strong international competition.
Beijing representative Helena Lucas and training partner Megan Pascoe were also within touching distance of the podium, finishing in fourth and fifth places respectively in the 2.4mR single-handed class.
Robertson, Stodel and Thomas’s Qingdao victory comes off the back of the title they won three weeks ago at the French Olympic Sailing Week in Hyeres (FRA) where they dominated the Sonar fleet.
The Paralympic race course proved a challenge for the Skandia Team GBR sailors, with big waves and conditions ranging from four to 22 knots, with the Sonar crew also handed a disqualification in race three of the nine-race series for a startline incident with the French boat.
But the British trio shook off their disappointment to take gold by six points over the French team.
Robertson explained: 'It’s pretty special being here in the Paralympic venue, and staying in the Olympic Village – it’s a full dress rehearsal for the Games so we’re really pleased to have done well, and we’ve learned a lot by being here.
'The whole team has just got on really well and has had a great time, enjoying the experience – I think some of the other teams have been a bit intimidated by it all.'
Robertson continued: 'The next three months are going to be very interesting. The other teams have been asking some searching questions of us – how old our boat is, how much we weigh! I think we’ve just been sailing consistently well as a team, Hannah’s been making some good calls and we’ve got good speed.'
For Birrell and Rickham, their Qingdao gold marks a meteoric rise to form in the class, with the pair only joining forces in the SKUD for the first time at the Rolex Miami Olympic Classes Regatta in January. They took bronze at their second event, the US Disabled-Open Midwinters in St Petersburg, USA which ultimately earned their nomination to ParalympicsGB for the Beijing Games.
The 26-year-old Rickham enthused 'It’s absolutely amazing – this is just the third regatta we’ve done, and all the lessons we’ve learned have paid off. It’s been a difficult week with the conditions we’ve had, but we’ve dealt with it well, which is a sign of how much we’ve improved.
'We came here wanting a medal, so to have won a gold is just amazing, but even so it is just a step towards those medals in September and the main thing is how much we’ve learned by being here.
'Everybody is so excited to have us here,' she continued. 'People have come out to watch us on the wall every day, drumming and cheering, and as a team we’ve really been able to feed off that.'
Birrell, 21, added: 'It was pretty difficult and we didn’t have it all our own way. Any event you win is great, but this has been amazing and our coach Harvey [Hillary] has worked really hard with us.'
Although finishing just outside of the medals in fourth in the 2.4mR class, 33-year-old Helena Lucas shared her teammates’ delight. 'I’m obviously a bit frustrated to have missed out on a medal this time, but the team’s done brilliantly and there’s been a great team spirit.'
She explained: 'It’s been a pretty tough week for me. I’ve been using a 16-year-old boat which I shipped out a year ago and had only ever planned to use for training – it had never been raced before. The boat was overweight so had a few issues, and was sinking quite a bit in the windy conditions we had earlier in the week!
'When the conditions got lighter, things started to fall back into place – I had an awesome day yesterday which pulled me right back up, but things didn’t quite go to plan today. It was a good battle and the main lesson for me this week was that it’s never over until the last race. After the second day I was down in ninth overall but managed to pull back – you have to keep going as you’re always in with a chance. '
RYA Olympic Manager Stephen Park was delighted with the team’s performance: 'The aim was to win one medal at this event, so to go home with two golds is fantastic. The sailors all faced a number of challenges during the event, and didn’t certainly didn’t have it all their own way.
'The Sonar and SKUD crews have done very well it was good to see a burst of speed from Helena towards to the end of the week. Crucially, for Niki and Alex to have won their first ever event in the Paralympic waters will be a huge confidence boost for them they return for the Games later this year.'
The 2008 Qingdao squad:
Niki Birrell, Knutsford, Cheshire
Helena Lucas, Southampton
Alexandra Rickham, Epsom, Surrey
John Robertson, Sunderland
Hannah Stodel, West Mersea, Essex
Stephen Thomas, Cardiff
Megan Pascoe, Ardingly, West Sussex
Read more on the sailors’ experiences of life in Qingdao in their Test Event blog at www.skandiateamgbr.com