British Paralympic medal-winning sailor and Green-Sports eco-warrior Alexandra Rickham’s story is one of the most compelling GreenSportsBlog has had the good fortune to tell. So our introduction today is extremely short. Enjoy!
GreenSportsBlog: Paralympic sailor and now Green-Sports leader. I can’t wait to hear this story. How did it all begin?
Alexandra Rickham: Not a Green-Sports leader yet but I hope to get there. Well, I was born in Jamaica to a British dad and a Jamaican mum. I was very active and was inspired to love sports watching the 1988 Seoul Olympics—I rode horses, swam, played tennis. Lived in Jamaica until I was 12, went to boarding school in the U.K, came back to Jamaica for my summer holidays after a year and then had a diving accident that left me a quadriplegic.
GSB: Oh my God! Was this from the neck down?
AR: Actually it’s from the chest down…
GSB: So what did you do?
Alexandra Rickham, British Paralympic sailor and eco-athlete. (Photo credit: Paul Wyeth)
AR: Well, I rehabbed in a lot of places including Miami at Jackson Memorial…
GSB: Is that related to The Miami Project to Cure Paralysis and former American football player Marc Buoniconti?
AR: Exactly. And, while my main focus turned to education more than sport, I wasn’t going to give up sport altogether. First thing, sport-wise, post injury was try sailing through Shake A Leg, a Biscayne, FL nonprofit that gets people with disabilities to try sailing.
GSB: Had you sailed before the accident?
AR: Yes but only a couple of times. Sailing, despite Jamaica being an island nation, was not a big sport there.
GSB: How is that possible? Jamaica has bobsledders but not sailors?
AR: You would think, wouldn’t you? But it’s true, we have a small competitive sailing scene. I also tried skiing through a great group called Backup Trust.
Alexandra Rickham tries her hand at para-skiing, thanks to the assistance of the Backup Trust. (Photo credit: Alexandra Rickham)
GSB: OK, forgive me, but how do you sail and ski when you are paralyzed from the chest down?
AR: Well, in sailing, the boats are designed for this purpose. The seat I sit in is fixed and I am strapped in. There is a push-pull system that allows me to steer even with my limited muscle control. My biceps are functional but my triceps are pretty much useless. As for para-skiing, it’s big in the nordic countries with the use of ski carts and a push pull system.
GSB: This seems incredibly…risky. I would think you would’ve been extra careful.
AR: Oh that definitely wasn’t me! But, as I said, education came first so sailing was put on the back burner. I went to the University of Bath to study Natural Sciences with an initial focus on biology but then I switched to environmental studies. After graduation I looked for a job for about a year in the environmental field but had no luck. It was the first time my disability really came into play.
GSB: How so?
AR: Some of the interview questions were quite unsuitable. Anyway I then went back to get a Master’s degree in environmental technology at the Imperial College in London…
GSB: What is environmental technology, anyway?
AR: Well, it’s not as “tech-y” as one might think. The focus was really on global environmental policy, which actually was quite interesting. My Master’s dissertation was Carbon Neutrality on the Isle of Man as an Example of an Island State. While there, one of the British sailing developmental squad members approached me. He was looking for someone to helm for him and challenge for a spot at the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games. Lets just say there was more sailing than dissertation writing.
GSB: How did he find you?
AR: The Backup Trust folks knew I had an interest in sailing and got them in touch. Plus, and this is unique to Paralympic Games, but they needed a woman with my level of disability. The boat was designed for that.
GSB: What are the levels of disability and where did you fit in?
AR: Great questions. I am considered a 1.0, the highest level of disability as laid out by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC). My partner was a 2.0— a paraplegic. I trained with the guy and due to funding the partnership fell apart but I knew I wanted to pursue sailing at the Paralympics. My parents sort of rolled their eyes. But I didn’t know if the opportunity would become real. So in the summer of 2007 I got a job as an environmental technology assistant at BP.
GSB: That was an interesting time. If memory serves that’s when BP was branding itself as Beyond Petroleum. Were you concerned about being part of a greenwash?
AR: Not really. I mean I understand the question. But I looked at it differently. My role as an environmental technology assistant gave me a great opportunity to learn about all the aspects of the environment and business from a company in a dirty business that, at the time, knew that it would have to diversify its energy mix in some way. Of course I wasn’t naive but I loved the job, the people I worked with and learnt loads. So sailing was on the back burner again.
GSB: Somehow, I have a feeling sailing was about to move to the front burner again…
AR: You are good! I got a call from the Royal Yachting Association; they said, “we have someone for you to sail with.” I told ’em, “I’ve got a good job…” but they sold hard—said they had an up and coming partner, Niki Birrell, a 7.0 with cerebral palsy. We would be funded, which was a huge issue. So I went to my boss at BP—a sailor herself…
GSB: What are the odds of THAT?!
AR: Exactly! Anyway so I asked for leave, she said yes, and I said “LET’S DO THIS!”
GSB: When was this?
AR: October, 2007. Niki and I were sailing a month later as the boat was packed up and we went to Miami.
GSB: How did you guys get along?
AR: We were an interesting pairing. We are very different people plus he’s five years younger than I am. So I needed to look after him a bit. He hadn’t traveled but was a sailing veteran. I had been all over the place but was a sailing rookie. In our first regatta, we beat the incumbent British boat that was the favorite for the GB Beijing spot. It was a surprise, really, as I think we were viewed as potential for London 2012, not Beijing. We were younger than the incumbent. So that allowed me to leave BP and train full time.
GSB: How did you get paid?
AR: We were paid a grant by the U.K. High Performance Programme. And we trained like crazy in a nine-month sprint to Beijing. Which was insanely short; most teams are together for several years. But we went to Qingdao in May, 2008 where Paralympic Sailing would take place and won the Test Event. Incredible!
GSB: Incredible indeed! You were ready for the Paralympics…
AR: Yes, but it gave us a bit too much confidence and, at the Paralympic Games, the weather didn’t favor us and we ended up coming in fifth place.
GSB: Still, to even make it to Beijing in such a short period of time…
AR: I guess, but Niki and I were disappointed. We took a few months off and then decided to go for it in London 2012. Only thing was, since we didn’t medal in Beijing, we got less money for training. Still, on a shoestring budget, we went off to Miami in January 2009 to start prepping for London. Raised some more money. Raced in Newport and Marblehead and elsewhere in New England. Kept getting beaten by a U.S. team but we got better. Went to the World Championships in Greece in October, 2009 and won it!
AR: Thanks! In fact, that was the first of five straight World Championship wins for us. In 2011, the Worlds were held at Weymouth, England, in advance of London 2012. We won at Weymouth…
GSB: But I bet there was no overconfidence…
AR: Exactly right. By this time, the Aussies were our main competition and it was tight. They’d win one, we’d win one, that kind of thing. But when it came time for London 2012, even though we had the right mental attitude, we made some mistakes in boat preparation and in tactics and we ended up with a Bronze. We were happy to medal, especially at a home country Olympics but still, we had another sour taste in our mouths.
Alexandra Rickham and teammate Niki Birrell with their bronze medals at the 2012 London Paralympic Games. (Photo credit: OnEdition)
GSB: So…did you try to go for Rio 2016?
AR: Yes. But by this time the partnership was struggling. Issues wouldn’t go away and I think we patched things as we went along but were never a complete unit. Still, we stuck it out, won our last World Championship in 2013, got silvers after that.
GSB: So what happened in Brazil??
AR: Well, we went into that Paralympics as one of the favorites again…The pressure was intense because sailing was taken off the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games docket. We knew this was our last shot at Paralympic gold, this my last Games and, after Rio, it was back to the real world. Again, things went wrong. We came away with our second straight bronze, behind the Aussies (gold) and the Canadians (silver). Really, losing to the Aussies wasn’t the thing that bugged me but the Canadians? We hadn’t lost an event to them for years. Not good, but they sailed better and that’s sports.
GSB: Still, medals in two Paralympics. Not too shabby in my book. Now, speaking of Rio, much was said and written, including in GreenSportsBlog, about the horrible environmental conditions of the sailing, rowing and outdoor swim venues. What was your experience?
AR: Another difference between me and my partner Niki is that he’s not environmentally conscious. So it was quite something to me that he was very sad about the state of the water in Rio, both for the competitors and, more so, for the residents. He had never seen anything like it and neither had I.
GSB: What did you see?
AR: Lots and lots of rubbish. This was a problem because it would get caught on the keels and I couldn’t clear it, and then we’d be stuck. There were dead fish as well. We were very careful about hygiene, doing whatever we could to keep the water off of us. Luckily for us, we didn’t get ill while there. But, the state of play of the water did improve from when we first went down to Rio to train in 2014 until 2016.
GSB: Did you think the sailing competition should’ve been moved from the polluted Guanabara Bay to a cleaner venue some miles away from Rio? There was a great deal of controversy about this, with the Rio organizers and TV networks pushing to keep the sailing at the Guanabara because of the spectacular vistas while some athletes, activists, doctors and sailing officials wanted to move the event to cleaner waters. Where did you stand?
AR: Ahhh, that’s a difficult question. I mean all of us in sailing want more visibility for our sport. Seeing the Union Jack on the spinnaker with Sugarloaf in the background was just amazing. The underreported part of this story was that the Guanabara is perhaps the most difficult venue for sailors, the ultimate test. So we wanted to sail there for sure. But, from solely an environmental perspective, the question is easy: Move the sailing to a clean venue. In the end of the day, it was probably a good thing that they kept sailing at the Guanabara because it highlighted the problems—the rubbish, the water quality, and the conditions for the people of Rio. The rubbish definitely improved some; hopefully the water quality did, too.
Alexandra Rickham and Niki Birrell sail for Great Britain in the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games in the Guanabara Bay, with Sugarloaf in the background. “The Guanabara” was a source of controversy in the run-up to the Olympics and Paralympics, owing to its significant pollution levels. (Photo credit: Richard Langdon)
GSB: It is crucial for the sailing world and other sports governing bodies to keep attention focused on Rio’s environmental progress—or lack thereof. So, after Rio, you said you had to get back to the real world. What does that look like for you?
AR: I’m working for PCSG within their sustainability consultancy arm, headed by Susie Tomson, formerly sustainability director for Land Rover BAR, Britain’s entry in the 2017 America’s Cup…
GSB: Susie Tomson? GreenSportsBlog interviewed her! She’s terrific! What are you doing with PCSG?
AR: I’m there to work with Susie on sustainability in sport. We are doing some reporting for London 2017 Para-World Athletics and IAAF World Championships. I’m also looking at the big picture of the sporting environment, collating information and putting together a comprehensive database about what teams, leagues, venues and other governing bodies are putting in place, sustainability-wise. And from there, we will hopefully be able to use the database to clearly demonstrate the value of sustainability in sport and really drive its further adoption.
GSB: This sounds like the perfect transition for you—from Paralympic athlete to the real “Green-Sports” world. Please keep us informed as to your progress. And thank you for sharing your amazing story with us. All the best!
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