The British Paralympic Sailing team repeated their impressive success of 2012, once again winning medals in two out of the three possible classes at the 2016 Paralympics in Rio. While there was plenty of celebration, with very close competition in all three classes, there was also a sense of disappointment for what could have been.
Bronze for Helena Lucas
Gold medal winner from 2012 in the 2.4 Metre class, Helena Lucas, went into the final race in gold position, so all looked positive for a successful title defence, although the points were very tight and she needed to win the final race to be assured of the class win. However it wasn't to be, unfortunately she picked up a plastic bag during the race and her speed was down, relegating her to bronze. It must have been a painful race, but such was the level of competition in the class that bronze remains, undoubtedly, an outstanding achievement.
However, it wasn't surprising that Helena Lucas couldn't hide her disappointment at not being able to defend her title after entering the final race of the event leading overall, only to finish the race in 15th place, as France's Damien Seguin (FRA) sailed to gold and Australia's Matt Bugg took silver.
After crossing the line, Lucas discovered that her boat speed had been hindered by a plastic bag, which had got caught on her rudder. But despite her frustration, the Brit was proud that she had been able to give it her best shot and still claim the final spot on the podium.
Lucas said: "It was an absolute fight in the mix, I couldn't break out or break free no matter what I did. I kept thinking I was doing the right thing and getting the shifts right but I didn't have the speed I've had all week because I was towing a bag.
"I came in to this event with my eyes wide open and I thought there would be six of us in contention for the medals so when everything settles down a bit I will be happy I'm on the podium because it is such a competitive fleet. I'll let the dust settle and be happy with a medal. I did give it my best."
Before today Lucas had sailed with the consistency befitting of the Paralympic podium, with a race four disqualification the only blip on an otherwise impressive scorecard, which included two race wins and no score outside the top five. That disqualification ultimately proved costly as Seguin, who previously won gold at Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 silver, was discarding a lower score of sixth, leaving Lucas with no margin for error in today's winner takes all showdown.
Nevertheless the 41-year-old insists she cannot be overly disappointed to now have Paralympic gold and bronze medals to her name. She added: "I would not switch that gold medal in London for anything, it was so unique and you are never going to get the chance to compete at your home Games ever again in a lifetime. To win gold there was always going to be the ultimate highlight of my sailing career.
"It's really disappointing not to have got gold here, having been wearing yellow four out of the six days we have been racing. But it's been one of those regattas; Damien has been so consistent and has put in a really solid performance whereas myself and Matt made ourselves a little bit vulnerable with our discards. I've got my gold medal, I will just have a bronze one instead. You just wonder what could have been."
Bronze for Rickham and Birrell
Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell said they were “elated” after matching their London 2012 feats by taking SKUD18 bronze on the final day of the Rio 2016 Paralympic regatta. The Brits entered the day still in with a shout for silver, but with the Polish duo hot on their heels an possible challengers for the bronze. Dan Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch (AUS) had wrapped up gold with two races to spare the day before.
Trailing the Canadian duo John McRoberts and Jackie Gay by a single point, the Brits eventually had to settle for bronze after a ding-dong battle around the racetrack, where the positions were changing hand throughout. McRoberts and Gay eventually sailed over the line third in the race, four seconds ahead of the Brits in fourth, to take the silver medal.
Rickham said: “We feel relieved. It's been a long, very hard week. We came here to contest for the gold, but that slipped away really quite quickly, and we're just so happy to have got the medal. It was close to being silver but John and Jackie sailed a fabulous regatta and they really deserved that medal. We're just elated. It's great to be able to come away with another medal.”
Birrell continued: “To have two Paralympic medals is just surreal. They don't come easy and I'd like to thank everyone who has ever helped us in our SKUD programme. Thank you so, so much. Now I'm looking forward to going home and seeing my wife! Rio has been fantastic, we've really enjoyed it. To get all 11 races in is awesome. We came for gold but we're super happy with bronze because this week we've had to fight so hard in our boat for every metre and every position.”
As the Poles and Ryan Porteous and Maureen McKinnon (USA) rapidly raced to the front, the battle for the decisive positions was unfolding behind them with the British, Canadian, Australian and Italian boats involved in a four-way fight. After two laps of the three had been completed, Rickham and Birrell held the advantage over McRoberts and Gay, with the Brits having the one boat between them they needed to win the silver medal. But with that one boat being the Australians, who have dominated the class this week, Canada and Britain were left in a straight head-to-head to the finish line.
Rickham added: “It was a really stressful race. On the start line we were really concerned because we were really close to the line so we were a bit worried we were over and we wouldn't have known until the end.
“But we had good boat speed and Niki was making some really good calls. It was really difficult on the course, up and down with massive shifts at the top of the course underneath Sugarloaf Mountain so it was anybody's game. Behind the Poles there must have been positional changes five or six times so it was hard but we're really, really happy.”
However in the Sonar class, there was definite disappointment for the trio of John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas who certainly had medal potential going into the event. While they kept to their vow of ending their Rio campaign on a high with a third in the final race, a medal was already beyond their reaches. The team finished the event ninth overall
John Robertson admits that although they were disappointed not have secured the Paralympic silverware that has eluded them at their fourth Games, they did have some standout moments to be proud of during the Brazil experience.
He said: “It was good to finish on a high note, it just shows what we can do. The Wednesday when we got the three bullets was pretty awesome; there was a nice bit of breeze and we really got into. We sailed the boat well today but to be honest we're just pretty disappointed not to be on the podium and not to get a gold medal. That's just sport and we weren't quite good enough this week. Even though we tried our best it didn’t all quite gel at the right time and that happens sometimes.”
The Paralympic team's impressive performance followed that of the Olympic Sailing team last month.