The Caribbean boasts a wealth of competitive sailing talent. Yet in the 51 years since the region first sent sailors to the Summer Olympics – starting when Richard John Bennett and Gerald Bird from Trinidad & Tobago finished 30th in the Flying Dutchman Class at the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome, Italy – only one sailor has brought home a medal. That is the U.S. Virgin Islands’ Peter Holmberg, who won a silver medal in the Finn during the 1988 Olympics in Busan, Korea. Will Holmberg finally have company in 2012? Past and present Caribbean sailing Olympians speak out on what it means to be an Olympian and what it takes to win a medal.
The chance to sail at the pinnacle of the sport has been a highlight for four-time Olympic multihull sailor Enrique Figueroa of Puerto Rico. “It has also taken me places that I have only dreamed about and provided me with a sailing family worldwide.”
The Olympics on a resume opens doors, adds Curacao’s Cor van Aanholt, who sailed the Laser in 2000. “It gives you credibility in the sailing world, sporting world and beyond. But, of course, it only gives you chances. You still have to grab the chances and do something with them. It doesn’t give you a free ride.”
It’s certainly isn’t easy to get to the Olympics let alone win a medal. Holmberg competed in 1984 before winning his silver in 1988. It was during a long drive from Los Angles to Florida in the wake of the ’84 Games that he figured out a winning plan: a concentrated two-year campaign.
“I trained at home, often by myself, often into the night,” Holmberg describes. “Then, when I got a second Finn, I asked other good sailors from the Yacht Club to come out and train with me. I would fly to the US every few months to do regattas and gain fleet smarts. Then I made three really key decisions. I decided to host a training session at home in the VI, inviting three really good US sailors down to train with me one winter. Next key decision was to fly to Korea, test the conditions and the Finns they were building for the Games. From this experience and seeing that the conditions were going to be extreme, I bought one of the prototypes, shipped it home, and did my final year of training in the VI. I then selected one other small nation sailor to team up with, provided him a place to live, and a faster boat to train with against me. We set a course in the middle of Pillsbury Sound and did two long races a day. Then in the final month, we moved to the exact Olympic schedule, eating at the scheduled times, starting our race at the 1pm race time, and doing the full Olympic course each day.”
Fast-forward nearly a quarter century and some of the regions hopefuls for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, which will be sailed out of Weymouth, UK, include: the Dominican Republic’s Raul Aguayo in the Laser; the USVI’s Cy Thompson in Laser and Mayumi Roller in Laser Radial; St. Lucia’s Stephanie Devaux-Lovell in Laser Radial; Puerto Rico’s Raul Rios and Marco Teixidor in Men’s 470 and Curacao’s Monique Meijer in Female RS-X, Dennis van den Berg and Ard van Aanholt both in Laser Standard and Philipine van Aanholt, in Laser Radial.
This year’s Summer Games literally represent the next generation for Curacao’s van Aanholt.
“Ten years ago, when we started the youth program in Curacao, I would not even have dreamed about having one of the kids of the program to sail an Olympic Qualifier just 12 years after I participated in Sydney,” says van Aanholt. “And look! We have three campaigning sailors, two of them being my children. Lots of people think I am training and coaching my children, but that is not the case. What I do is find the best coaches for them and define what type of coaching they need at certain times in their career.”
Yet another Caribbean sailor who hopes to sail in Weymouth is Andrew Lewis, of Trinidad & Tobago. Lewis eloquently sums up just what this means to him: “I want to sail in the Olympics because it is a dream of mine. I want to win the gold medal in my sport and for my country. I know that my sailing at the Olympics will inspire a whole new wave of young sailors in T&T and help the sport to grow. This is a great responsibility, but one that I am looking forward to.”
Finally, Holmberg offers this sound advice to future generations of Caribbean sailors who aspire to the Olympics. “Analyze your strengths and weaknesses from here in the Caribbean. Stop following the herd. You will not be able to outspend or out-campaign the big countries. But you can out think them. You must think outside the box. The Olympics are so unique, so difficult to succeed at, that you must do something extraordinary if you hope to win.”
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.