Helena Lucas
The paralympian won Britain's first ever Paralympics sailing gold during London 2012. PHOTO CREDIT: IBTimes Uk IBTimes UK

When Helena Lucas, one of Britain's top ranked sailors, made the transition from a 470 dinghy to a Paralympic campaign in the 2.4mR, it would be a move that would change her life forever.

The 37-year-old athlete would go on to make history by becoming Team GB's first Paralympic gold medallist at London 2012. She was entitled to switch because a birth defect in her hands meant she could be classified as disabled.

Speaking exclusively to IBTimes UK at the National Sailing Academy in Weymouth, Lucas, who is the only woman in her fleet, insists that trading her Olympic dreams for a shot at the Paralympic gold in 2004 was one of the best decisions she ever made.

"I was looking for a new challenge. Something new and something different," she says.

"It was probably the best decision I made. Certainly after this summer and winning a gold medal in London."

In 2008, Lucas competed in the Beijing Paralympics but only managed to rank seventh. It was that disappointment, however, that spurred her into working harder to turns things around for London 2012, she says.

"It's a very difficult place to be. People only remember the medallist, they don't remember who came fourth, fifth or sixth.

"I came away from the Beijing games and analysed what went wrong and decided I needed to change it. I learnt valuable lessons. I think that's why I came away with a gold medal this time around."

The sailing pro insists that aspiring Olympians and Paralympians should have the same unwavering mindset when trying to succeed.

"Never give up," she says. "I feel like I have been doing this forever and finally I've reached my dream and my goal.

"You can learn so much from your failures and disappointments. It makes you a stronger person - more motivated and driven."

New-found fame

Despite becoming a sports star last summer, Lucas says she was in shock for some time over her new-found fame.

"It was quite bizarre," she recalls. "I remember people coming up to me and saying 'wow you have just won a gold medal'. I don't think it really sank in until I was standing on the podium and watching the flag go up and the national anthem playing and at that moment that's when it sank in.

"I remember just standing there thinking "God, I've actually done it'. Even now it feel surreal. It feels like it happened to someone else. It's an amazing feeling."

After walking away with the top prize on her home turf, Lucas hopes to defend her title at the Paralympics in Rio in 2016.

"If I manage to it will be another piece of history as there has never been double gold for Paralympic sailing," she tells IBTimes UK.

While some critics insist that the sports system favours able-bodied athletes over their disabled teammates, Lucas is adamant that the level of recognition given to Paralmypians has improved significantly over the years.

"[Last] summer was the best Paralympics ever and the British public did really embrace us as athletes.

Lance Armstrong was my hero

"We have also been inspired by the reaction. The recognition certainly got better last year and every games it will get better. It's a more even playing field."

Lucas, an avid cycling fan, believes she is lucky to be in a sport free of doping, following the recent Lance Armstrong drugs scandal.

"Lance was my hero and I must admit that when it first started coming out I was just didn't believe it," she says. "Unfortunately, it was all true. One of the fortunate things about sailing is there is no advantage to taking performance-enhancing drugs so we are a drug-free sport."

"But with cycling it's so hard. Until doping control gets a lot better the athletes are one step head of the regulators.

"The sad thing is that people are at that start line looking around and wondering who is on drugs and who isn't and there will always be that fear, 'is it an even playing field or not?'"

Having successfully climbed her way up the ranks of sailing, Lucas is considering following her fellow athletes Victoria Pendleton and Ashley McKenzie and venturing into reality TV.

"I'd love to do Strictly Come Dancing," she admits. "The one I wouldn't do would be I'm a Celebrity. I hate creepy-crawlies. I am rubbish with spiders."

Lucas will be travelling to Buckingham Palace on 12 March to receive her MBE for services to sailing, an accomplishment she considers one of her greatest.

"Finding out I was getting an MBE was the ultimate end to a wonderfull year," she says. "My agent is trying to get me a nice dress for it [the investiture ceremony]. If she doesn't succeed I'll probably end up in Debenhams again."

Helena Lucas Director of the Weymouth and Portland National Sailing Academy is sponsored by leading lawyers, Charles Russell.