“’Heartbroken’ is the only way to describe our feelings when we heard sailing was being removed from the Games,” admits Britain’s four-time Paralympian Hannah Stodel.
Even six and a half years on the ‘crushing blow’ still hurts those close to the sport, but Stodel and the sailing community are refusing to end their campaign for restoration.
The International Paralympic Committee (IPC) decided not to include sailing in the line-up for Tokyo 2020 after they deemed it to be ‘failing to meet worldwide reach criteria’ and they also denied it a place at the Paris 2024 Games.
However, in the years since those decisions World Sailing, in conjunction with fleet federations, have made a raft of changes and are launching a new #BacktheBid #SailtoLA campaign in the hope of gaining a reprieve for the 2028 Games.
Here Stodel, who was born without a lower right arm, but aims to compete in the 2024 Vendee Globe round the world yacht race, explains the power of the Paralympics and why the sport deserves a reprieve.
Q – I understand you weren’t always a fan of the disability sport, but your opinion certainly changed!
“I raced able-bodied categories and in lots of interviews I said I just want to go to the Olympics. I always saw disability sport as a weaker option and it was never really something I wanted to do, but that all changed when I met Andy Cassell who won the (Sonar) Paralympic gold at Atlanta 1996. He invited me to train with him and that was game-changing. My whole world was shaken up and I realised I was very wrong when it came to disability sport.”
Q – Sailing is an incredibly technical and complex sport, but people may be surprised by just how inclusive it can be for people with disabilities.
“I may be a little biased, but I would personally say it’s the most inclusive sport. In my cass, the Sonar, you had such a range of disabilities from full quadriplegics to slight sight loss all competing on the same playing field and it was a real leveller in terms of disabilities. Basically as soon as you jump into a boat you can just leave your disability on the shore and that’s what I think is so powerful about sailing.”
Q – What is being been done to appease the IPC after the concerns they raised about the sport when they chose to remove it from the Paralympics?
“Since we got removed we’ve worked incredibly hard with World Sailing to build grassroots sailing and develop opportunities to make it accessible. One of the biggest things is that when you go to an event now boats are all provided, so that cost is taken out. Back in my day, we had to invest in boats and it wasn’t cheap and it was definitely a barrier to people coming in.
Now you can turn up at a World Championships and race in like-for-like boats and it’s really opened the doors to a lot of countries who couldn’t get access to sailing.”
Q – So it’s now all about your ability to sail rather than the technology you have?
“Yes, you all use the equipment provided and people swap boats throughout the regatta so even if one is a little bit faster it’s all evened out. It stops everything becoming an arms race and that’s what you see it in other events like Americas Cup and the Vendee Globe where whoever has the most money is going to win. That’s not what sailing is about as a sport. It’s about freedom, being on the water and competing against the elements. It’s not about who’s got the most money.”
Q – You are still competing and are targeting the Vendee Globe yourself in 2024, but would you return to Paralympic sailing if the sport is restored for LA2028?
“I know I said after (Rio) 2016 it was over for me, but then snapped back into the World Championships in 2018 and I didn’t realise how much I would miss the circuit. Jumping back in was eye-opening so I’d never say never, but I have a lot of experience when it comes to competing at that level and I’d love to share that with a team, so you might see me behind the scenes potentially.”