AFTER years of hard work and training Portland’s Paralympic Sailing stars will begin racing at the home Games today.

Six British athletes will be among 80 competitors from 23 nations vying for glory in three medal events on the waters of Portland Harbour.

All of the GB sailing contenders have a shot at gold and a medal at the London 2012 Games would mark the first ever British Paralympic sailing medal.

British Sailing Manager Stephen ‘Sparky’ Park said: “From a British Sailing Team perspective it’s going to be as exciting as the Olympic Games.

“We have a very integrated programme and business as usual has rolled on from the Olympics to the Paralympics.

“We’ve got the same level of support staff, the same sort of support for all the sailors and the same high expectations of them out on the water.”

John Robertson, Hannah Stodel and Steve Thomas are bringing more than a decade’s experience together to the Sonar three person keelboat class, while four-time World Champions Alex Rickham and Niki Birrell are looking to achieve the only medal that has eluded them in the Skud-18 two-person keelboat.

Helena Lucas will be the only woman racing in the 2.4mR single-handed keelboat class.

Mr Park added: “It’s our strongest team ever, as was our Olympic team.
“We’re very fortunate in this country, we have a performance system that enables us to deal with the Paralympic athletes in the same way as the Olympic athletes.

“Their training programmes are very similar.”

Mr Park said the ‘power’ of the Games meant that there would be unusual results at the Paralympics, as there had been at the Olympics but the team had ‘worked hard’ over the past four years to continuously perform well under pressure.

Portland’s Niki Birrell said he and Alex Rickham aimed to treat the big event as a ‘normal sailing race’.

He said while it was ‘nice to get the attention’, the best way to win was to ‘keep it as normal as possible on the water’.

Rickham added: “The support seems to be growing, I guess because the Olympics was such a big success.
“It would be great if the whole ParalympicGB does as well as in Beijing, we’d like to be on the happier side this time.”

Beach is open to have a go

THERE will be plenty to see and do during the Paralympic Games period as well as the sailing events.

Parts of Channel 4’s coverage will be screened at the ICCI360 Dome near the Pavilion for free, as well as a variety of cultural events as part of the Maritime Mix Cultural Olympiad by the Sea.

The free Weymouth Beach Sports Arena will also open again from today.

It is based on the successful sports arena that was on the beach during the Olympics and will offer lots of different ‘give it a go’ sports including table tennis, boccia which is a wheelchair sport similar to bowls, rowing, power-lifting, judo, wheelchair tennis, basketball and fencing.

The arena will be open from 11am to 5pm until Wednesday and from 2.30pm to 5pm next Thursday and Friday.

The Mount Pleasant park and ride with 1,000 spaces will operate.

A special shuttle bus has also been laid on for those with mobility impairments and will have a

number of drop-off points.

Sonar 3-person keelboat

John Robertson, 40, Sonar helm, was born in Sunderland but now lives on Portland.

The former RAF weapons technician, who is paraplegic, was disabled as a result of a motorbike accident in 1994.

Hannah Stodel, 27, Sonar tactician, was born in Colchester, Essex, but now lives on Portland.

Hannah, who was born without a right forearm, became Britain’s first female sailing Paralympian when she and her Sonar teammates made their Paralympic debut at the Athens 2004 Games.

Steve Thomas, 35, Sonar crew, was born in Bridgend, Wales, but now lives on Portland.

Former ice sledge hockey player Steve, who is a double below-the-knee amputee after suffering from meningitis in 1996, has the unusual distinction of having represented Britain at both the Winter and Summer Paralympic Games.

2.4M R Keelboat

Helena Lucas, 37, was born in Redhill Surrey, and has a house in Southampton but is now based on Portland.

Born without thumbs and limited extension in her arms, Helena is in the unusual position of having done both Olympic and Paralympic campaigns.

Helena finished seventh at her debut at the Beijing 2008 Games but having achieved IFDS Worlds bronze medals in 2009 and 2011, is one of the favourites to win a medal at London 2012.

SKUD 18 2-person keelboat

Alex Rickham, 30, Skud 18 helm, was born Kingston, Jamaica, but now lives in Epsom, Surrey Alex, who is tetraplegic, 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 her sailing crewmate Niki.

Niki Birrell, 26, Skud 18 crew, was born in Manchester but now lives on Portland.

Born with cerebral palsy, Niki previously campaigned the 470 Olympic class with his brother Christian before moving into the Paralympic 2.4 metre one-person class for a while.

Less than 12 months after pairing up with Alex in the Skud 18, the duo had finished fifth at their first Paralympics.

The four-time World Champions have been the dominant force in the class ever since.