It is 12 years since Natasha Baker first announced to her parents – while watching television coverage of the Sydney Paralympics – that she wanted to be a Paralympian.
Now, only a year after winning two gold medals in dressage at the European championships – in her senior competition debut – she is about to fulfil that dream.
She is already predicting the “goosebumps” she will feel when she completes her first dressage “test” on her horse Cabral – knows as JP – and looks up to see the crowd in Greenwich Park.
The Greenwich equestrian venue, she says, is “stunning”, and she loves the idea of riding in such an historic location, and is particularly pleased that she and the other riders will be competing close to the heart of London 2012.
“It is so nice to be actually part of London,” says Baker. “The equestrian events have always been pushed to the side. In Beijing they were in Hong Kong. In London, they are going to be in the heart of the games.”
Baker says the ParalympicsGB equestrian team has the potential to win a medal in every one of the five grades, which range from Ia for athletes whose impairment has the greatest impact on their ability to ride, to IV for those whose impairment has the least impact (Baker competes in grade II).
“If I could win a medal, that would be incredible,” she says. “I would be happy then. I am 100 per cent going for gold but at the end of the day they are horses and anything can happen.”
She agrees that dressage is one of the events where it will be hardest for the public to see any difference in performance between Paralympic athletes and their Olympic colleagues.
“That’s the aim,” she says. “Dressage is meant to look completely effortless, like we are sitting there doing nothing.”
The difference between Olympic and Paralympic dressage comes in the tests that are designed for the five grades, each of which is designed to “make us do things that are hard for us”, according to the rider’s level of impairment.
Her hope for the Paralympics, she says, is that spectators and viewers “will see disabled people pushing themselves to the limits”, just as they saw non-disabled athletes pushing themselves to their limits during the Olympics.
Sailing is another event in which the difference between Paralympic and Olympic athletes can be negligible, according to Paralympian Alexandra Rickham.
Rickham, who is competing with Niki Birrell in the SKUD 18 class, says that “everybody who is on the Paralympic team has worked extremely hard for their place and dedicated themselves to their sport”, just like Britain’s Olympic athletes.
“For me,” she says, “the differences between the Paralympics and Olympics are not really there.”
Technical ability is the key to performance in sailing, she says. Everything else “is periphery”.
“You need to have your fitness, and endurance is pretty major. You are out on the water for five or six hours. But the technical and tactical and mental components in the sport are huge.”
She and the rest of the ParalympicsGB sailing team have been based at Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy for four years, although she has commuted to the base from her home in Surrey.
Rickham, a wheelchair-user, is full of praise for the academy’s accessibility. “I have sailed all over the world,” she says, “and it is probably the easiest place for us to go sailing.”
The equestrian events take place between Thursday 30 August and Tuesday 4 September.
The sailing starts on Saturday 1 September and ends on Thursday 6 September.
23 August 2012