If the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games had come just a few months earlier you could have been forgiven for narrowing the Two-Person Keelboat (SKUD18) fleet down to a two horse race.
Australia and Great Britain have dominated the world championships as far back as 2008, but in May this year the streak was broken.
At the 2016 Para World Sailing Championships in Medemblik, the Netherlands, Poland’s Monika Gibes and Piotr Cichocki sailed a consistent regatta to win the title at a canter. They followed that win up quickly, just weeks later at the same venue when they won the SKUD18 competition that was part of the Hansa World Championships.
It could be argued that the Polish team just enjoyed the waters of the Ijsselmeer the most out of the SKUD18 fleet, culminating in their success, but Cichocki is adamant this isn’t the case, “The World Championship in Medemblik was just the beginning. It was one part to prepare for Rio. Myself and Monika have done everything to prepare and we are ready to be here and we want to win the gold medal.”
If you watched the Olympic Sailing Competition you would have seen that Guanabara Bay can throw up a lot of challenges and is different to the sailing area of the Netherlands, but Cichocki is confident in his sailing ability and looking forward to proving it in Rio, “Sailing is similar everywhere around the world for me. You do have a special wind and current here [in Rio] so it will be a little different, but we are ready for that.”
If Gibes and Cichocki are to win they will have to beat the dominant forces in the SKUD18 fleet. Sharing the World Championships between them since 2008, Great Britain’s Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell and Australia’s Daniel Fitzgibbon and Liesl Tesch seemed to have a monopoly on titles, but now that the streak has broken the question in Rio 2016 is, was it a one off or is it the start of other nations rising to claim the title?
The question won’t be answered until the final day of racing, but current Paralympic gold medallist, Aussie Fitzgibbon, thinks that the venue will be the biggest obstacle towards his defence, which may not be good news for him, but for the watching public it definitely is, “It’s going to be a challenging venue. I’ve sailed a lot and I feel this is probably the most challenging venue I’ve ever sailed in. Anyone can win this regatta coming up and that will be great for the viewers.”
That is only the opinion of Fitzgibbon, but with a silver from Beijing 2008, where he sailed with Rachael Cox, and the gold at London 2012 with current partner Tesch, surely he knows what he is talking about.
The other world champions and bronze medallists from their home Games of London 2012 gunning for gold are Rickham and Birrell.
Talking about their chances and their closest rivals, Birrell said, “The Australians have done really well this four-year cycle, but I believe on our day if we deliver what we can there is no reason why it can’t be gold for us.
“I see everyone as a rival but the Polish team’s progress has been really good. But we’re not really too worried about what they do, if we can just minimise our own mistakes and go as fast as we can that’s it.”
Agreeing with her team mate, Rickham knows that it is down to their own abilities and even wonders if fate could take them all the way to Paralympic gold this time around, “We’ve been at the top end of the fleet for a long while. The way I look at it is we came fifth in Beijing , we came third in London , so clearly the natural progression has to be first this time, doesn’t it?”
Elsewhere in the fleet there is USA’s Maureen McKinnon who has a Paralympic gold medal in the SKUD18 from the Beijing 2008 Games when she sailed with Nick Scandone. McKinnon is sailing with Ryan Porteous this time around.
Sandra Nap and Rolf Schrama (NED) are always pushing for podium finishes and have the potential to medal in Rio, and you can never rule out a host nation team. In the SKUD18 the home team is former professional footballer, Bruno Landgraf and Marinalva Almeida.
The SKUD18 fleet begin their competition at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games on Monday 12 September at 13:00 on the Pão de Açucar race area of Guanabara Bay