Great Britain’s Paralympic team sailors will be on a mission to replicate the success of the country’s history-making sailors at last month’s Olympics when the curtain is officially raised at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games on Saturday.
Six sailors representing ParalympicsGB in three classes get their 2008 Paralympic campaigns underway in Qingdao on Monday, 8 September with the memory of Britain’s all-time best Olympic sailing six-medal haul still fresh in their minds.
A record 80 athletes sailing in 41 boats from 25 nations will compete for the medals in Qingdao, in what is sailing’s third appearance at a Paralympics. And with Britain claiming two golds and a fourth place at the IFDS Qingdao International Regatta – considered the Paralympic Test Event – in May, the Paralympic squad will be desperate to extend Britain’s golden summer a little bit longer.
Two-time Sonar World champions John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Stephen Thomas will once again do battle in the three-person keelboat class having taken their Paralympics bow in Athens four years ago. Meanwhile, Helena Lucas, who also went to Athens as reserve for the Sonar, will now get to make her Paralympic debut in earnest, competing in the 2.4mR one-person keelboat.
Meanwhile, with the SKUD-18 two-person keelboat being introduced for the first time at Beijing 2008, Niki Birrell, from Knutsford, and Epsom-based Alexandra Rickham, who only teamed up last November, will be looking to continue their rise to prominence having won Skud class gold at May’s Test Event.
Jamaican-born Rickham, who will celebrate her 27th birthday on the fourth day of the competition next Thursday, admitted she will be fulfilling a lifelong dream when she sails out from the marina on the opening day of the regatta.
She said: 'When I saw the opening of the Seoul Games in 1988 I was six-years-old and I adamantly told my mum I was going to go to the Olympics. It’s kind of ironic how it’s all come true in the strangest way but it is great. Niki and I both bring totally different things to the table so we’ve been able to slot into the various roles easily.'
Birrell, the youngest member of the sailing team having only turned 22 last month, added: 'Alex has got a lot of qualities I don’t, like staying calm, and she creates a nice atmosphere in and around the boat and off the water. It’s a pleasure to go sailing with her.' Having also won Test Event gold, as well as taking victory at the Hyeres Olympic Classes Regatta in April, Britain’s Sonar crew, who have been together since 2003, will be hoping to improve on their Athens 2004 show where they finished sixth.
However, Welshman Thomas insists the trio will have to be at the top of their game to medal in Qingdao. He said: 'There are seven or eight boats that could win a medal and we’re in the mix. The competition has risen significantly since Athens and hopefully we can perform well and be in with a shot.
'At the start of the year our sole aim was to qualify for the Games. After the selection it was to progress and put in some good results in regattas to go into the Games with some good confidence. It’s an amazing honour to be selected, as long as we do ourselves proud there’s nothing else I could really hope for.'
Skipper Robertson, from Sunderland, agrees: 'Obviously we want to win a gold but Qingdao being the way it is you have got to be realistic and don’t get too upset if you have a bit of a bad day. We went to Athens and that was unreal and to be selected again is out of the world.'
West Mersea girl Stodel is confident that the Brits have the experience and determination to give themselves the best chance of making the podium. She added: 'One of our biggest challenges in China is going to be not getting wound up by the opposition and keeping it together. There’s a lot of banter in the fleet and everyone likes to give each other a bit of jip on the racecourse.
'As a team we all mesh together really well and I think the opposition know that. We’ve stuck together for so long, that’s our greatest quality, and fighting back no matter what, we’re always determined.' Southampton-based Lucas already has a proven record on the Qingdao track, having helmed Annie Lush and Lucy Macgregor to 2006 Olympic Test Event Yngling class silver in the absence of double Olympic champion Shirley Robertson.
And the 33-year-old Naval Architect thinks Qingdao’s reputation as a light wind venue could work in her favour.
She said: 'Going out for that first race, hopefully I’ll be feeling kind of excited but relaxed. The Olympics is a different regatta to any one we’ve done before but I think the thing is to try to keep level-headed. I’ve got a good concentration level and I do tend to do quite well in the light winds because of my size, being so small and light whereas most of my competitors are male.
'I’m going to need a medal round my neck to come home satisfied and if it was gold, that would be fantastic. I think there are four of us fighting it out for the medals and I’m looking forward to it.'
RYA Olympic Manager Stephen Park added: 'All six sailors, although a mix of youth and experience when it comes to the Paralympic Games itself, are all proven performers at elite disabled sailing events on the world stage. We have high hopes for all of them continuing Britain’s Olympic sailing success this summer.'
Two races are scheduled to take place on Monday’s opening day with 11 races scheduled in total for all classes before the end of the regatta and medal ceremonies on Saturday 13 September. There are no medal races for the Paralympic Classes with the winner being the boat with the lowest score at the end of the series.