Sixteen-year-old Mayumi ‘Mimi’ Roller is part of the rising tide of women sailors who are cutting an exciting wake in the sport. Over the last six years, she’s grown from timid Opti sailor to talented Laser Radial competitor ready to take on the world at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.
No one, especially Roller, would have predicted this track and trajectory. She admits that her first sailing experience was scary. “We all started out on Sunfish. Even though an instructor took me out, I got scared. The boat was too big, too fast.”
Roller quit after that but her year-older brother, Hugo, didn’t. “He kept going and he started to do well. Call it sibling rivalry, but I began sailing again. I said to myself, ‘I can do it too.’ After that is when I fell in love with sailing, practiced and practiced, and went to all the local regattas.”
Roller competed in national and international sailing events as well. One of the high points in her Optimist sailing career came at the 2003 Orange Bowl Youth Regatta held at the Coral Reef Yacht Club in Miami, Florida. She bested a 52-competitor Green Fleet with a 52-point lead for first. “My goal was to get into the top ten. When I started getting all the firsts, my confidence really went up,” she explains.
“The little local regattas were one thing. But, they don’t compare to larger international events,” says Roller. “At these, the starts are harder, it’s tougher to keep up with the fleet. You can’t lose focus at all. If one person passes you, it can spiral into a domino effect where they start passing you and you get their bad air. It was the big events that really opened my eyes to the world level of sailing.”
Beyond the U.S. and Caribbean, Roller competed in Optimist championships in Ecuador and Switzerland. “I love the traveling. Seeing new places. Meeting new friends. It’s great,” she says.
The Optimist Worlds in Switzerland in 2005 marked a course change in Roller’s sailing career.
“I was sick of Optis by then,” she recalls. “My brother kept telling me about Lasers. I hate to bail and was never good at it in an Opti, so I loved Lasers immediately. Also, it was the sibling rivalry thing again. I wanted to go out and beat my brother.”
Roller’s first regatta sailing a Laser 4.7 was a real eye-opener. “I was the only girl sailing 4.7s at the time. The first time I sailed this boat in a regatta, it was me and two other boys. I didn’t know the controls at all and how to get up speed. I remember my brother calling to me across the water, telling me what to loosen. When I did, wow, it was exhilarating. Lasers plane, Optis don’t.” Roller quickly moved up to a Laser Radial.
“There weren’t that many female Radial sailors, and only two of us from the Virgin Islands that were going to any international competitions. That’s when I really started thinking about the Olympics. It was always something in the back of my mind, but once I was in Laser Radials, it became something real.”
Roller picked up speed quickly. In 2006, she placed sixth out of 12 in a highly competitive class at the Central American Caribbean (CAC) Games in Cartegena, Columbia. “I finished first in one race, and in another race beat Tania Elias of Mexico, who was internationally ranked,” she says. Over the next year, Roller worked out in the gym to develop muscle and weight.
“I knew the top women Laser Radial sailors were relatively big girls, so I had to train as well as sail,” she says.
The next year, Roller sailed in the Pan American Games in Buenos Aires, where winds proved problematic. “It was so shifty it was hard to predict. One minute you’re ahead. The next minute you’re behind. First to last. Last to first. It was incredible.” Win or lose, one of Roller’s incredible talents has been to remain focused and positive.
“You really have to want to win and excel. That means staying self-motivated and not having any negative attitudes. You just have to focus on improving your skills. Even if you don’t do as well as you would have liked, stay positive. It you stress yourself out, you’ll lose focus. It’s a hard place to get to, but easy to stay there once you’re mentally there,” Roller explains.
Roller has a big job ahead of her in the next few months. She’s a senior at Antilles School in St. Thomas, taking an incredible caseload and maintaining an A-average while applying to the top sailing colleges in the nation. Come March, she’ll travel to New Zealand, where she’ll compete in the World Laser Radial Women’s Championship and hope for either a straight score or wild card entry into the 2008 Summer Olympics.
“New Zealand might be tough because it’s windy. But Beijing is supposed to be light air and I know I can be competitive in those conditions. I might not be big, but sailing isn’t just about weight, it’s about tactics and techniques as well,” she says.
While looking ahead, Roller looks behind and offers this advice for young girls following in her footsteps: “Don’t get discouraged. Practice a lot and keep at it. Guys do have pride issues, but it’s so much fun to beat the boys.”
Carol M. Bareuther, RD, is a St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands based marine writer and registered dietitian.
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THE LASER RADIAL
The Laser Radial is a popular one-design, single-handed dinghy. It’s a variant of the Laser Standard, with a shorter mast and reduced sail area, allowing light sailors to compete in heavy winds. Over 181,000 Laser dinghies – 4.7, Radial and Standard – are sailed in over 120 countries worldwide. The Laser Radial was chosen as the Olympic class for singlehanded women starting with the 2008 Summer Olympic Games.
HELPING PROSPECTIVE CARIBBEAN OLYMPIANS
Readers who want to donate to Mayumi Roller’s Olympic campaign can contact the Virgin Islands Sailing Association, St. Thomas Yacht Club, Attn: VISA president Bill Canfield, 6224 Estate Nazareth, St. Thomas, USVI 00802, or 340-775-6320.