‘Global Gamechangers’ showcases powerful stories of women across business, sport and the arts who are shaking things up, blazing new trails, and changing the playing field.  

As part of the ITN Business ‘Global Gamechangers’ programme, author and broadcast journalist Louise Minchin spoke to Alexandra Rickham, a Paralympic Sailor and Head of Sustainability for World Sailing.

Here, we learn more about this incredible sporting talent, as she reveals how sailing is becoming far more inclusive and sustainable.

I was an avid swimmer growing up.

I’m British Jamaican, so grew up in Jamaica. I first got into sailing around 13, and started competitively about age 26. I loved water sports. After my accident, I was rehabbing, and one of the first sports I tried post-rehab was sailing.

I had a really unique experience with Olympic sailing.

I was recruited by the Royal Yachting Association to become a member of the British Sailing Team. I showed the aptitude and the drive to run a campaign, and so they put a bet on me to be able to deliver for them. That turned into a 10-year partnership, which delivered two medals.

Alexandra Rickham at sea.
Paralympian Alexandra Rickham takes to the water.

I think entry to sailing has changed significantly for women and for para-sailors.

For women, specifically, we’ve now got equity balance in the Olympic Games. We have an equal number of women and men competing in classes, which is a huge step forward. And we’re seeing more women in the professional leagues which is a huge change. But we’re still on a journey; we still have a long way to go within sailing. And we’re doing a lot of work to stimulate that. 

On a global perspective, we have Steering The Course, a festival we run twice a year — one for the Northern Hemisphere, one for the Southern Hemisphere — which is all based around women celebrating sailing. I think that’s a real step forward and a change for us. 

In terms of getting more people participating in racing, on the sports side, we’re seeing a big increase.

That’s a lot to do with the work of world sailing and our member national authorities, that are engaging parasailors and recognising that they are a huge part of our community. 

Sailing is one of the only sports on the planet, if not the only sport where para-athletes can compete against able-bodied athletes in classes on an equal playing field.

And that’s super unique and important because it’s inclusive; whereas in a lot of other sports you are either para or you’re able-bodied. And actually we can compete in certain classes against an able-bodied person. You see a lot of sailors beat able-bodied sailors regularly.

The first time my sailing partner and I won the World Championships was really huge.

We’d put everything into that goal and at the end of a year when we set out to get it, we did it. That changed our destiny as a team.

In my role as Head of Sustainability, I have a massive agenda.

World Sailing was one of the first international federations to put forward a sustainability agenda. We’re also the first federation to get ISO 20121 certified, which is around sustainable event management. We have to deliver across 56 objectives, both environmental and social. That includes anything from looking at how we build our boats and the impact of that, and the life-cycle of them. It includes how we increase participation in sailing for more diverse communities, and how we increase participation from women and drive forward the professional side of the sport.

I hope I’m a bit of a poster child to the fact that it isn’t for posh people and it isn’t for legacy only.

I come from a family of sailors, so my parents have absolutely no idea what’s going on in a race course when I’m racing.

My favourite thing on the boat was always the helm and I like being on the stick, so I’m a bit of a control freak.

What world sailing is doing actively around parasailing is we’re just trying to increase participation levels. We’ve already seen the uptake has been massive. 

I think a game-changer for me, and somebody who I’m definitely inspired by is Sylvia Earl.

Her deepness! She’s a protector of the oceans. I think what she’s done over the course of her lifetime; the fact that she, as a woman, has been a leader and has changed the game for everybody behind her and changed the conversation about ocean protection, is really inspirational. And the fact that she’s still doing it in her 80s — it’s insane.

Learn more about other Global Gamechangers shaking things up in the world of sport, business, and the arts, here.