By Tom Degun

Tom Degun_in_GuadjalaraAs we enter the year of 2012, the eyes of the world's elite disability sporting talent are understandably fixed on August 29 to September 9, the date when the London Paralympic Games will captivate the globe.

Before those Games take place, though, there is the small matter of getting to them in the best possible shape and for many of Britain's top Paralympic sailors that means competing the 2012 International Association for Disabled Sailing (IFDS) World Championships.

This year the competition will take place at the picturesque Laishley Park Marina in Florida and for Alexandra Rickham, one of Britain's top London 2012 medal prospects, the competition is all about getting ready for the Paralympic sailing event on the waters of Weymouth Bay.

The story of the 31-year-old, who now resides in Surrey, is quite remarkable.

Born in Kingston, Jamaica, Rickham had never sailed until she suffered a severe diving accident in 1995 that left her with a major spinal cord injury.

She first sailed on a day out while rehabbing in Miami and enjoyed the experience but she did not start taking the sport seriously until studying at Imperial College in London some 10 years later.

It became quickly apparent that she was rather adept at the sport and, in 2007, she teamed up with Niki Birrell for the SKUD 18, the two-person keelboat event that includes one severely disabled sailor and one person with minimal disability.

The partnership proved an instant success and after only their first two regattas together they earned selection for the Beijing 2008 Paralympics.

They put in a superb performance in China to finish fifth, although both were disappointed with the result.

They have since worked their hardest to become one of the world's most dominant teams and they have claimed a huge number of victories, most notably at the 2011 IFDS World Championships in Weymouth to put down a major marker for the Paralympics.

The pair will be looking to defend their title in Florida when the 2012 World Championships takes place from January 7 to 15.

The pressure will be off the duo somewhat due to the fact that London 2012 Paralympic selection is no longer a concern for them – in August last year, Rickman and Birrell were unveiled as two of the first five athletes officially selected to represent Britain at the Games.

Rickman admitted that it was a huge honour to be one of the first five Paralympic athletes selected to represent GB at London 2012 but admitted that nothing changes with regard to her preparation to the Games, starting with the 2012 World Championships.

"It was great to be one of the first athletes selected for London 2012 and to be selected over a year ahead of the Paralympics really makes it a big focus," Rickman explained in an accent that carries only the slightest hint of her Jamaican past.

"We're really very happy and excited but being selected so far out also means we have a duty to really put in the hard work over the next few months.

"It starts with these 2012 World Championships in Florida but continues right through to the Paralympic Games.

"The key for Niki and I is really to make sure that we get a medal at the Paralympics this time around.

"A medal at London 2012 would make up for everything that happened in Beijing and it was actually a big decision for Niki and I as to whether would continue together after Beijing.

"We'd had such a short lead up to Beijing that we didn't really owe each other anything but there was unfinished business so we did carry on and we're both determined to learn the lessons from before and to perform at our home Games.

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"The win at the World Championships last year at Weymouth and Portland has definitely given us confidence for next year, not only for ourselves, but it was also important for the other teams to see we could lay it down at our home venue after a string of silvers at the Sail for Gold Regatta.

"We're desperate to bring home a medal for the team and the best way to make that happen is to continue to do well in all the big races heading into London 2012.

"That starts in Florida and a victory at these World Championships would really put down a big marker to our rivals and show that we really mean business this year.

"I think that our biggest competition will be from the USA but anyone on the water is a rival because this is such an unpredictable sport.

"So we are just going to focus on ourselves and be the best we can be."

Rickman's Partner Birrell, who was born with cerebral palsy, is also confident he can achieve his dream of securing Paralympic gold.

But the 25-year-old from Manchester, the youngest member of the British disability sailing team, says the first step to London 2012 gold is victory in Florida.

"Ever since the last race in China we've been doing all we can to win a medal in 2012 – preferably a gold one – and the hard work really starts now at the 2012 Worlds," he said.

"We always have to move forwards and we can't be sitting around and getting fat waiting for the Paralympics!

"Our rivals will be doing to their best to catch us so we're going to have to work hard to stay on top.

"It would mean everything to me to win gold at London 2012.

"I've been sailing since I was nine-years-old and full-time for the last four years.

"Winning gold would be fantastic not just for me, but all the people who have helped us along the way.

"It would be perfect if it happens, but we've got a lot of extensive work and dedication before then."

It will be from 1st to 6th September that the London 2012 Paralympic sailing competition at Weymouth will take place. A total of 80 athletes will be competing across three categories for just three gold medals.

Gold at the Games in the SKUD 18 is certainly what Rickman and Birrell are thinking of. Before that, though, there is the small matter of the 2012 World Championships where the duo will be looking to show their rivals that there is only one pair to fear heading into the biggest disability competition on the planet. 

Tom Degun is a reporter for insidethegames. Follow him on Twitter here