Most likely, there is no other sailor in the Caribbean with as much Olympic level experience as Puerto Rico’s Enrique ‘Quique’ Figueroa. And, likely no other as hungry to make this fifth campaign to Beijing in 2008 a charm and bring home a medal. “That’s what our mindset is all about right now,” Figueroa says, “Winning a medal.”
Born on February 25, 1964 in San Juan, Puerto Rico, Figueroa characterizes his current campaign with long-time crew Jorge Hernandez: “It’s all about sailing smarter—putting our years of experience to strategic advantage.”
Figueroa first set sail aboard a beach cat at age 10 off the waters of San Juan’s metro beaches. “In 1980, when I was 16 years old, I sailed in my first major competition. It was the Hobie 16 Worlds in St. Croix and I finished third. The next year, I raced in and won the Hobie 14 Worlds in Brazil.”
In 1984, Figueroa enrolled in Sacred Heart University in San Juan and majored in Business Marketing. However, he continued racing successfully around the globe. The year 1985 saw him win the Hobie 14 Worlds, held in Isla Verde, Puerto Rico, and place second at the Hobie 16 Worlds the next year in Suva, Fuji. In 1986 he teamed up with fellow Puerto Rican sailor, Denise (Balzac) Holmberg and won a Gold Medal in the Hobie 16 at the Central American Caribbean Games (CAC Games), held in Santiago de los Caballeros, Dominican Republic. Figueroa is the only sailor in Puerto Rico to win four gold medals in the CAC Games.
The next decade, Figueroa made his first Olympic bids – 1992 in Barcelona and 1996 in Atlanta. In addition, in 1994, he enjoyed two greats in his life. The first was winning the IYRU (now ISAF) World Sailing Championship title and the second was meeting and marrying Carla Malatrosi, a kindred sailing spirit. As a team, Figueroa and Malatrosi won a Gold Medal sailing Hobie 16s at the Pan American Games, held in Winnipeg, Canada.
In 2000, Figueroa made his third Olympic bid with Pedrin Colon in Sydney, Australia. The pair ended an impressive eighth overall. Malatrosi stayed home to give birth to the couple’s first of two daughters, Isabella Victoria. But she was back on the racing scene in 2002 with Figueroa when the duo placed third in the ISAF Hobie 16s in Marseille, France. This placing is all the more impressive as the pair were up against 35 other teams representing 20 nations. It’s no wonder that on March 3, 2003, the Senate of Puerto Rico named Figueroa “Puerto Rican National Sportsman of the Year” in sailing for the 10th year in a row.
The following year, Figueroa and Hernandez represented Puerto Rico at the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece, and finished seventh overall. In 2008, they hope to better this performance and bring home the gold.
“After the last Olympics,” he says, “we never really stopped sailing although we did take it slower for most part of 2005. Then, we tested new equipment on the Tornado and prepared for the 2006 CAC Games in Cartagena, Columbia, where we won a Gold Medal in the Hobie 16.”
Figueroa adds, “We had a very hard last year on the Tornado and Hobie. After a tough summer in Europe, we switched boats to the Hobie for the Pan Am Games in Brazil where we finished third; not as high as we would have liked. Now, we are concentrating again on the Olympic Tornado to get ready to quality for China.”
Figueroa was ranked 22nd in the World by ISAF as of July. Not qualified yet, Figueroa and Hernandez will get their chance at the Tornado World Championships, set for New Zealand in February 2008. To prepare for this momentous event, they’ll race the Hobie 16 World Championships this month in Fiji, then train in the Tornado in Spain for November and come home to Puerto Rico in December to continue training.
Although there are many great beach cat sailors on Puerto Rico, Figueroa says, “The fact is that most work and getting everybody together on the weekends is kind of tough. We are able to sail during the week so it is us alone on the Tornado.” Another difficulty of mounting an Olympic sailing campaign is “not liking cold weather or water – anything below 75 degrees.” Still, “Nothing beats the Caribbean. We have the best sailing in the world,” Figueroa adds.
Difficulties aside, what does winning an Olympic medal mean for Figueroa? “Ask me next summer and I hope I’ll be able to tell you!”
The Tornado, 20 feet long with a 10-foot 8-inch beam and hull weight of 300 to 320 pounds, is the only Olympic class catamaran. Designed in 1966 in England specifically to be the Olympic class catamaran, the Tornado entered Olympic competition in 1976. In 2002, the so-called Tornado Sport replaced the Tornado. The platform remained the same, but a spinnaker and an extra trapeze for the helmsman were added in the Sport design. The multihull shape and relative large sail to a low weight ratio explain why the Tornado Sport is so fast, capable of attaining 30 knots on a reach and 18 knots upwind. Class rules, international schedules, and general class information can be found at www.tornado.org
Helping Prospective Caribbean Olympians
Caribbean athletes often need financial support to make it to the Olympics. To support the athletes in this month’s “Countdown to Beijing,” please contact Figueroa at: [email protected]