The 2012 Paralympic Sailing Competition is set to get underway on 1st September and Stephen Park, RYA Olympic Team Manager, is backing Britain’s sailors to banish the ghosts of Beijing and claim the nation’s first ever full Paralympic sailing medal at Weymouth and Portland.
Helena Lucas (2.4 Metre one-person keelboat), Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell (SKUD two-person keelboat) and John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas (Sonar three-person keelboat) make up the six-strong team that will do battle at London 2012, the same six sailors that represented Britain at Beijing 2008.
The team headed to China four years ago with high hopes of landing Paralympic silverware having accrued an array of World Championship medals in the build-up to the 2008 Games. But a disappointing whole team performance saw them leave Beijing empty-handed and reflecting on what might have been.
A brutally honest post-Games review has resulted in four years of refocused hard work. Now Park believes the sailors that take to the water at Weymouth and Portland will be very different to the ones who returned from Qingdao.
He said: 'The sailors came back after Beijing really quite disappointed they hadn’t managed to come home with a medal. When we came back everyone sat down and said ‘This is just not good enough’, both from a sailors’ perspective let alone a World Class programme and RYA perspective. Immediately we set out on that four year journey to try to re-establish what was required at the Paralympics and particularly that is about performing under pressure.
'The sailors have done a huge amount of work with the coaches and support staff over the last four years to put themselves in a stronger position where they feel more confident with what they are going to have to deal with at London 2012.
'One of the things with Paralympic sailing is you tend to have smaller fleets than at the Olympics and you don’t have a double-points medal race so you need to come fairly quickly out of the blocks and get some good results on the board. You can’t afford to have any high scores and hope it all evens out over the course of the week because there could be one or two performers who are performing so far ahead of the rest of the field that they never have a bad day and you can never catch up.'
Between them Britain’s team sailors have won nine World Championship medals since 2008, including Rickham and Birrell clinching four World titles in the SKUD. One of the reasons the Paralympic sailors continue to perform consistently on the World stage is the fact they are part of the whole British Sailing Team, with the same access to specialist coaches and sports science as the Olympic classes sailors.
Park continues: 'The way we look at it is our Paralympic sailors have got special needs, our Olympic sailors have all got special needs; the only difference is the needs are different. Our point is sailing is a sport for all, a sport for life and the fact some people have got some disability is a side aspect to the performance itself. We regard them all as elite athletes, that is what they are, and we therefore provide them with the same level of service and we expect the same level of sacrifice, commitment and dedication from our Paralympic sailors as we do our Olympic sailors.'
Park admits the behind-the-scenes team continued to learn important lessons about the Weymouth and Portland venue and conditions in Portland Harbour, where all the racing will take place, throughout the Olympic regatta. And he is excited about the prospect of the nation throwing its weight behind Paralympics GB team endeavours as enthusiastically as they did during the Olympic Games.
He added: 'I think the Paralympics will bring that excitement of Great Britain performing back into the living rooms of the country and that will be fantastic. I think very quickly the fact the athletes are all different levels of disability will soon be forgotten and it is just going to be about whether Great Britain can rule the waves.'
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 programme at Sydney 2000.
The London 2012 Paralympic Sailing Regatta runs from Saturday 1st September to Thursday 6th September.
Each class completes a series of 11 races. The sailors accrue points depending on where they finish in a race (ie: First = One 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 first-5th September, with one race for each class on the final day (6th September). Racing is scheduled to start at 11am daily.