Dorset EchoGOING FOR GOLD: The Paralympic team are training hard (From Dorset Echo)

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GOING FOR GOLD: The Paralympic team are training hard

Dorset Echo: TRAINING: Alex Rickham and Niki Birrell in SKUD action TRAINING: Alex Rickham and Niki Birrell in SKUD action

THERE aren’t many world-class athletes who would climb to the top of a hill for an interview with their local paper but Portland ’s Niki Birrell is one of them.

“We don’t get a signal here,” the four time World Champion SKUD-18 keelboat sailor explained, “So I’ve climbed a hill.

“I can’t complain, it’s a gorgeous setting here and the sun is shining.”

Birrell, 25, and the rest of the Paralympic team, including his helm Alex Rickham , are currently training in Mylor, near Falmouth where they are being treated ‘like Royalty’ by the locals.

The ParalympicsGB contenders, who are all capable of winning gold this September on home waters, have relocated to make way for the Olympic sailing races in the borough, which begin this Sunday.

Birrell said: “The fact it’s the start of the home Games tomorrow and that we have a chance of a medal is pretty exciting.

“We’ve been training hard, it’s all looking good.

“Everything’s relaxed, obviously Weymouth and Portland would be a nice place to be with the Games but it’s also nice to be able to get away and focus on sailing and what training we need to do.”

Rickham and Birrell have dominated the SKUD class since 2008, winning every World Championships since then.

Manchester-born Birrell, who was born with cerebral palsy, previously campaigned the 470 Olympic class with his brother Christian before moving into the Paralympic 2.4-metre one person class for a while.

But in late 2007 he was introduced to Rickham and less than 12 months after pairing up the pair had competed at their first Paralympics.

Although they finished fifth at that event they have proved almost unbeatable in the class ever since.

Their dominance on home waters shone through at last month’s Skandia Sail for Gold regatta and last year’s Paralympic test event, the IFDS Worlds 2011, which they won with a day to spare.

Birrell said: “We will come back to Weymouth and Portland for sailing when the venue opens on August 22.

“My uncle gets married on August 11 so I’ll go home to Manchester for a week and see friends and family, then move down to Portland before the final training begins.”

He added: “We’re lucky to have a nice set up on Portland and also down at Mylor, here they’re treating us like Royalty really, making every effort they can for us.

“It’s a lovely holiday place but also a great training venue.

“And the weather’s been fantastic, I forgot my waterproofs but I haven’t needed them.”

Britain’s Paralympian’s – Rickham and Birrell in the SKUD-18 two-person keelboat, John Robertson , Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas in the Sonar three-person keelboat and Helena Lucas in the 2.4mR single-person keelboat – have a lot of expectation resting on their shoulders as the country has never won a Paralympic sailing medal, since it officially joined the Games in 2000.

Portland’s 2.4mR rising star Megan Pascoe , who narrowly missed out on 2012 selection, has been among the training partners working with the team.

Four-time World Champion Rickham, 30, who was recently one of the inspirational Olympic torchbearers carrying the flame through Portsmouth, was first introduced to sailing while rehabbing from the diving accident which left her paralysed and in a wheelchair in 1995.

It wasn’t until studying for her Masters in Environmental Technology in London 10 years later that Jamaican-born Alex started taking sailing seriously and in late 2007 she was introduced to Birrell.

Birrell began sailing with his family aged nine. His granddad Ian took his dad Mark out as a child and the family tradition followed for Birrell and his brother Christian.

Birrell said: “I instantly took to it.

“My brother’s a really good sailor – he’s currently sailing in Roma, Italy.

“We sailed together for a long time, I used to steer and helm for him from the age of nine to 21.

“It was really enjoyable as kids to sail together with our dad every weekend, good fun and it’s still good fun.”

Birrell’s family’s motto is ‘the harder you try the luckier you are’.

He said: “I think some golfer said it once, my granddad heard it and it stuck.”

He intends to try hard to achieve a medal from the Games, even if it means missing out on the festivities.

“From an athlete’s point of view we want to win the event and look back later and think that was amazing.

“We feel dead privileged to be on the team, we’ve trained every day for years and years for this. I hope Britain does as well as the sailing team are expected to do.

“It’s going to be a fun event, I hope people come along and support us and we put on a good show.

“It means a lot to have people backing you, sailing is quite a minority sport nationally.”

Unlike the Olympics the Paralympics won’t have a ticketed spectator area, everyone can just sit out on the Nothe peninsula and watch the races take place from 11am daily in Portland Harbour from Saturday September 1 to Thursday September 6.

Birrell added: “If we win this one, it will be more than a 24 hour celebration.”

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