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Sailing - 06. September 2013.

Alexandra Rickham One Year On: London has opened the doors and people’s minds

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Alexandra Rickham One Year On:  London has opened the doors and people’s minds

This Friday, September 6th, marks the one year anniversary since Britain’s sailors broke their Paralympic Games duck and won their first medals since the sport become part of the full Paralympic Games programme in 2000.

Epsom’s Alexandra Rickham won bronze in the two-person SKUD class with crew Niki Birrell.  She last week claimed her fifth World Championship title with Birrell to kick-start their road to Rio.  Here she looks back on their Paralympic regatta and their ‘scrap’ for the podium, and on a ‘mind-blowing’ Games experience.

Looking back on my Paralympic Games experience, I remember feeling excited but also a bit frightened.  I think Niki and I had invested so much in that four years and in the build-up and we’d been moderately dominant, so there was quite a lot on our shoulders.  Also we were the favourites going into the event and a chance for ParalympicsGB from the sailing side to actually finally get a medal.

I think there was a level of pressure, but at the same time we were all just really excited that 2012 had finally come and was there and it was all starting to happen.  I suppose in retrospect it’s kind of weird to think that we’ve made it past 2012 – not only as a team, but I think in general because it seemed like the world was going end afterwards.  Some people actually thought it was!

It’s been a great year since, and we’ve done so many different things and had so many different opportunities, but to think back to that is quite weighty on the shoulders.  It turned into quite a difficult Games for us, although we came out with a medal which was what we wanted even if it wasn’t the colour we had hoped for.

It was difficult because we knew that everybody was looking towards us to basically knock us off pole position – I think they managed to do that, which was unfortunate, but at the same time Niki and I have learned a lot about ourselves in the last year. We probably put too much weight on the event without realising it and ended up putting a lot of pressure on ourselves, whereas this time round going into Rio we’re hoping for a bit more balance in our campaign.

I think we wanted to do the job for the country and to know that we’d made that step for Paralympic sailing – especially as there were so many people behind us and we had such a strong team.  We’d never lived up to our Olympic counterparts on that stage and so we very much wanted it to go that way – we wanted the next step to be that the Paralympic team held their own. Also because of the funding and all that stuff it has a huge bearing on where you stand afterwards, and frankly the Paralympic sailing programme pretty much would probably have disappeared if there hadn’t been some medals in some form come out of our programme.  So it was great in that sense that we did manage to deliver, and of course Helena did too.

I do have mixed emotions about the Games experience.  I love Weymouth and Portland but it does make me quite sad – just because it felt like our event was so much more difficult than it needed to be, we ended up in the protest room and there were all of these things that happened and it wasn’t a particularly enjoyable regatta for either of us.  It was a real scrap.

But in terms of the Games as a whole the emotion is completely different.  I went to the Sainsbury’s Anniversary Games a few weeks ago and the sense of excitement coming into Stratford on the tube was huge – it was very much that sense of excitement from last year when we came up from Weymouth and we were medal winners coming into the actual Olympic Park to see everyone.  Everybody was so excited and there was still that same feeling in the air coming in.  The Olympic Park and that side of things going into London still makes my heart flutter a bit because it was such an exciting place to see everything happen and for us it was an amazing experience.

The British appreciation for disabled sport has always been great – we’re the home of the Paralympics, so I think our awareness is much greater than anywhere else.  In terms of the explosion and the love and the fact that disabled sportspeople have become icons I think is phenomenal.  Going to the Anniversary Games the stadium was probably more packed on the Paralympic Day than it was on any other day, and that in itself is unbelievable and pretty mind-blowing.

The flipside in terms of disabled awareness is that I think we still have a long way to go.  The Paralympics has allowed people to be more inquisitive and made people realise they can ask people questions and that sort of thing in terms of having those conversations.  I think that’s opened the lines of communication which is the first step, but in terms of access and really changing people’s perspectives – it’s not going to happen overnight.  London opened those doors and it’s now a case of staying on the same trajectory looking at disabled rights and that side of things probably a bit more as a nation, and making sure that equality becomes a much greater focus of where we’re going.  But I think that’s more easily done with Paralympic sport still being at the forefront of people’s minds, and obviously now high on the sporting agenda.

I’ve been obsessed with the Olympics since I was seven. When I saw Seoul I thought that this was the beginning of the end of the world!  Last year I got tickets to Super Saturday to go and see the cycling and saw the British girls win their gold medal and then went into the stadium and saw the big three medals and also being half Jamaican I also got to see Shelly-Ann Fraser win her gold medal in the women’s 100m.  Basically all of my dreams came true in one night – I was so hyperactive my mum was quite concerned that I was going to collapse into some kind of apoplectic fit because I was literally so high on life!

That set up the Games for me – just going into the Park and seeing all of that sport and seeing people just getting so revved up, and seeing London just so genuinely happy is something that will never be removed from my mind .  It’s engraved now.  The wave of sound in the velodrome was just amazing – if I’m ever having a bad day that’s what I think about.

Our fifth World Championship last week was a good start on our Road to Rio, but as we know it’s a long road.  Having had four other world titles and no Paralympic title yet the celebrations are kind of much more metered.  It’s great but we see this very much as a step on the road.  At this point our evaluation of world titles is that they’re really just a part of the puzzle leading towards a Paralympic title. That’s all we want, that’s our concern.  We’re happy but it’s the first step in a very long road.

I think Rio’s an amazing city – I’ve been there and I loved it.  It has an amazing vibe and I’m sure they will wholly embrace the Games, and the fact that it is a celebration of sport I think that will be very much Rio’s stance on things – to enjoy the party and the celebration of it all.  In terms of disability and the Paralympic side of things, they have a lot to do in terms of access and stuff but I’m sure it will all come good.  There’s doom and gloom somewhere along the line about every country that hosts the Games and magically they pull it out, so one would presume Brazil will do the same thing.  In terms of sailing it’s going to be a difficult venue clearly – completely surrounded by land and there seems to be all sorts of fun things going on there on the water.

But we’re looking forward to it – we’re looking forward to spending a bit of time there and getting to know the venue a bit over the next few years and just being able to enjoy everything that Brazil has to offer.

It’s amazing that they’re going to be hosting the Games and it should be a really enjoyable Games and lead up.
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