Paralympic sailer and London 2012 gold medallist Helena Lucas was recently confirmed as the first member of next year’s ParalympicsGB team. Here, she tells us how it feels to be heading into Rio 2016 at the top of her game…
To those not unfamiliar with competitive sailing, can you explain the 2.4mR class is and what it involves?
It’s the baby of the mR class family. It’s not a boat specifically designed for disabled sailors, but it can be adapted to whatever your needs are by changing its layout or systems – which means you can compete at the highest level against any able-bodied male or female sailors. I don’t know of any other sports where that’s the case.
We’ve got our Open World Championships coming up in August, where there’ll be 110 competitors. Last year I got the bronze medal and [Norwegian paralympic sailor] Bjørnar Erikstads got silver, with both of us racing against able-bodied sailors. I could sail a boat that came straight from the boat builder [Lucas was born with no thumbs and limited extension in her arms], but Bjørnar doesn’t have any arms. His hands start from his shoulders, so he wears a gumshield, pulls a lot of the ropes with his teeth and has adapted his boat so that the fittings are at a level where he can use them.
What prompted you to start competing in 2.4mR?
I had been competing in the 470 Olympic class, and made the switch to 2.4mR in 2004. I’d campaigned in the 470 for about eight years at that point and knew I needed to move on, but not being particularly tall or heavy I was restricted by my size and weight as to which class I could move into.
The Royal Yachting Association (RYA) then approached me and asked if I’d thought about going to Paralympic sailing in the 2.4 mR, and it was something I’d never thought about. I didn’t really have any knowledge about Paralympic sailing, but thought I’d give it a go. It was a whole new challenge, the boat being completely different to what I was used to, but it gave me a chance to develop other sailing skills and turned out to be the best decision I ever made.
What is your current training regime like?
We’ve been based down in Weymouth and Portland for a few weeks, looking ahead to Rio. There’s lots to do – I’m staying on top of my fitness in the gym for a couple of hours a week, and busy doing various jobs on the boat. We’re about to start moving away from the development side to concentrating on racing skills, making sure I’m up to speed.
What does that process of preparing for a race involve?
I have a coach, Ian Barker, who’ll be in another boat, a RIB [rigid inflatable boat] with a powerful engine on the back. We get to talk to each other before the start of an actual race and between events, but never during – though he will stay out on the water and follow me around the course, watching me racing and videoing key moments. Afterwards we’ll sit down, have a debrief, go through the video, chat about the day and discuss those areas we can improve on.
Going into Rio 2016 as the current gold medal holder, does this campaign feel different to your preparations for London 2012?
I feel I’m in a fantastic situation – we’re starting from a position that was good enough to win gold, and now we’re taking it a step further. Compared to past campaigns I feel we’re very much in control of our programme. It feels like we’ve got a bit more time, as we’re not having to make those big leaps that were needed for London. It’s been more about small gains, ‘putting the icing on the cake’, in a way. We’ve been able to get into the nitty gritty, which normally you can’t do, and refine what we learnt from London.
Do you have any pre-race habits or rituals?
I used to be really superstitious, but have tried to wean myself off that! Psychology is so important, though – when you’re on the starting line alongside other athletes of equal talent and ability, what makes the difference between winning and losing is what’s going on in your head. It’s less a ritual than a routine, but in the build-up to the Games I’d spend 10 minutes each morning with my sports psychologist and another 10 minutes every evening.
They were ‘offloading periods’, where I could get any concerns or worries out in the open and then walk into the Boat Park with 100% focus. Coming off the water, I’d then offload all the emotional stuff that had happened during the day and be able to put it to one side. It was quite a ruthless routine that we had, but a really important one.
What would you say has been your biggest career challenge or setback to dae, and how did you overcome it?
I guess it would be the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing – the sailing team had been strong favourites to win medals and we all came away with nothing. That was probably the hardest regatta event of my life, because if you’re not in the medals at the Games, no one really cares if you finish 4th, 10th, whatever – it’s about standing on the podium. Getting halfway through the regatta, realising it wasn’t going to happen and trying to hold things together while still going out each day was a real challenge.
As a team, we learnt an awful lot from what went wrong in Beijing. I remember that afterwards we went straight down to Portland, sat down as a team and talked about the mistakes we’d made. The difference over the next four-year cycle was that we stayed on top of each other to make sure we didn’t make those same mistakes again. Quite often you’ll learn a lot more from your mistakes than from your successes; setbacks build up your character and help to raise your game.
Beyond Rio 2016, what are your other ambitions within the sport?
I’m keen to go into some other classes. You don’t really have the time when putting all your effort into competing in one particular class, but after the Games are over I’d love to go and have a bit of fun – sail some other classes with some great people in a less pressured environment. I’d also like to do some coaching as well, and give something back to the sport.
What other interests do you have outside of sailing?
Skiing, windsurfing and cycling are pretty big hobbies for me. It sounds a bit crazy to be doing it during my downtime, but I go sailing too. My husband and I own a 29ft. cruising yacht, which we’ll soon be using to cruise around the Solent.
That what’s so special about sailing, that there are so many different aspects to it. There’s the racing side, but it’s also fantastic to jump on a boat, go cruising and explore some of the amazing places aren’t as accessible by land – you get a completely different view of the coastline.
You can find out more about Helena by visiting www.helenalucas.com or following @hlucasgbr on Twitter
The RYA is the national body for all forms of boating under power or sail. Through its RYA Sailability programme it also introduces more than 53,000 young people and adults with disabilities to sailing each year. For more information and details of your nearest Sailability site, contact 0844 556 9550, email email@example.com or visit www.rya.org.uk
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