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Figueroa Untouchable In Pan Am Hobie 16 Gold-Medal Performance

By Gabrielle Paese

August 15, 2003
Copyright © 2003 PUERTO RICO HERALD. All Rights Reserved.

SANTO DOMINGO, Dominican Republic -- It was the perfect ending to a perfect Sunday and Puerto Rico's premier Hobie 16 sailor Enrique "Quique" Figueroa wanted to keep it for always.

That he did with an unblemished showing en route to his second straight Pan Am Games gold medal here at Santo Domingo's Andres Bay. In reality, Figueroa so dominated catamaran sailing at these XIV Pan Am Games over the first six days that he didn't even need to rig up his sail for the last two regattas of the series. The final two regattas were academic because Figueroa led by so many points, no other sailor could have caught him. The 38-year-old could have spent the day on the shore under a beach umbrella with his wife and crewmate, Carla Malatrassi, playing in the sand with Isabella and Paola, the couple's two daughters.

But he didn't. Under perfect conditions, Figueroa rigged and headed out, earning two first place finishes to erase two second-place finishes from the first day that did not affect the overall standing. In these Pan Am Games, the Hobie Cat sailors competed in a total of 12 regattas, and the two worst finishes were discarded. The remaining 10 scores were averaged for a final total, in Figueroa's case, of 10 perfect net-points.

"Blame my wife. It's her fault. She told me we had to do it," said Figueroa.

"We wanted to erase those two second places from the first day of competition," said Malatrassi. "This way we finished with all firsts."

So on the final day of sailing, Figueroa gave the rest of the Hobie 16 class a lesson in sailing. With second place still in hot contention between Guatemala, Mexico and Brazil, Figueroa started both races far from the starting line.

"We didn't want to get in the way of the other competitors because we didn't want to be a factor for them," said Figueroa.

Mexico finished in second place with 24 while 14-year-old Guatemalan sensation Juan Maegli took the bronze with 30 net points. Maegli squeezed out Brazil's Bernardo Arndt by one point.

Figueroa's starting point gave him a huge disadvantage over the other competitors, but even so, the Puerto Ricans won both regattas handily.

"The father of one of the Mexican sailors came over and told me he couldn't believe it. He said it was virtually impossible to win like that," said Figueroa. "But we did. Quique is really good. He knows what to do all the time."

"Everything went just as we hoped for," said Figueroa, who won his first Hobie title when he was just 17 years old.

Figueroa is the first Puerto Rican athlete since weightlifter Fernando Luis Baez to win back-to-back Pan Am gold medals. Baez won gold in 1967 in Winnipeg and again in 1971 in Cali, Colombia.

Baez said he was pleased to hear that someone had finally equalled his gold-medal mark after 32 years.

"I think it's great because it shows that the Olympic Commitee is making an effort and doing its job very efficiently," said Baez. "Someone had to do something sooner or later and notice that our athletes need a boost."

Figueroa is also glad the Puerto Rico Olympic Committee has finally noticed, even if it took a Pan Am Games gold in 1999 to get their attention.

Despite the stellar credentials that have earned him recognition on every continent, Figueroa continued to sail mostly in obscurity in Puerto Rico for the past decade. The lack of recognition on his own island frustrated him. A four-time Central American-Caribbean Games gold medallist, the first Puerto Rican athlete to ever win four CAC golds, Figueroa won his first world championships at age 17 in Brazil, taking the Hobie 14 catamaran title. In 1984 he was third at the Hobie 14s in the Phillippines and in 1986 he sailed to second place at the Hobie 16 world championships in Fiji. Along the way he has won the U.S. national Hobie titles at least eight times. His domination of the Hobie cat has spanned three decades. Last year he was third at the Hobie Tiger Worlds and in 1994 won the IYRU World sailing championships. He won the Hobie 20 continental championships in 1999, the same year he and his wife/sailing partner Malatrassi earned their first Pan Am gold sailing Hobie 16. It was Puerto Rico's lone gold medal in Winnipeg.

For that first Pan Am Games campaign in 1999 as well as for his 2000 Olympics Tornado campaign, Figueroa pounded the pavement himself to recruit his own sponsors, necessary to defray the sport's high costs. With a wife and two daughters to support and his own sailing equipment store, Beach Cats, to run in San Juan, Figueroa has had to consider all angles.

"This is the way to get recognition, come to the Pan Am Games," said Figueroa. "I hope this has the same effect on the Olympic Committee and the sponsors [as it did the first time]. I hope they keep this in mind for the Olympics and the future of the sport."

These Pan Am Games will likely win over his people. Already considered the highest-profile athlete in the Department of Sports and Recreation's Aid to Full-Time Athletes program, the second gold medal will likely make Figueroa and sailing household words.

"I hope it has that kind of effect," said Figueroa, who says that after all these years, he still goes out there to have fun.

Next up for the sailor are the Tornado World Championships in September in Cadiz, Spain, where Figueroa and sailing partner, Jorge Hernandez, will try to qualify for the Athens Olympics.

Figueroa is not the only Pan Am Games medalist from Puerto Rico dreaming of 2004.

Castellvi-Brandi team up for Pan Am Games women's doubles silver medal

The tennis duo of Vilmarie Castellvi and Kristina Brandi are hoping to follow in the footsteps of their Pan Am Games coach, Gigi Fernandez. Castellvi and Brandi finished with a silver medal here at Santo Domingo's Parque del Este this week in women's doubles tennis. While they lost the gold medal match to second-seeded Brazilians Bruna Colosio and Joana Cortez, 6-4, 7-5, they made history in the quarterfinal match by beating the U.S. duo of Carly Gullickson and Ansley Cargill, 6-3, 6-2. It was the first time Puerto Rico's women had ever beaten the U.S. in a Pan Am Games match.

Silver is the best Puerto Rico has ever done at a Pan Am Games in women's tennis. The last player to earn silver was Gigi Fernandez herself, who teamed up with Marilda Julia 20 years ago to finish second at the 1983 Pan Am Games in Caracas, Venezuela. At those games, Fernandez also earned women's singles silver.

Brandi, meanwhile, lost the Pan Am Games semifinal match to top-seed Sarah Taylor, of the United States, 6-2, 6-2, and finished with the bronze medal. In all it was the best finish for Puerto Rican women's tennis in 20 years.

"Two medals is pretty good," said Fernandez, who coached the team here. "Things don't always go your way and the girls put out a good effort."

The last time Puerto Rico's women won a medal in tennis was 1987 in Indianapolis, bronze, also won by Fernandez.

Fernandez went on to win two Olympic gold two times in women's doubles, once in 1992 and again in 1996. Representing Puerto Rico, Fernandez won three Pan Am Games medals in the sport during her playing career and carried the Puerto Rican flag into the 1983 Pan Ams in Venezuela. She won three CAC Games medals for Puerto Rico as well.

"The silver medal is hard to take. With the gold medal and the bronze medal you know you won the match. But when you get the silver medal, it means you lost," said Castellvi. "It sounds bad. Obviously we wanted the gold, but it's an honor to get the silver and I'm pretty happy. Kristina is a veteran and I'm just starting in this. No one knows better than Gigi and it's an honor to have her coaching me. There's a lot to learn from her."

Brandi-Castellvi are now aiming for Athens, where they aspire to the standard Fernandez set in both Barcelona 1992 and Atlanta 1996 when she teamed up with Dominican Mary Joe Fernandez to win back-to-back gold medals for the United States.

Fernandez said watching the women play on center court here in the gold medal match didn't take her back.

"I didn't really feel any nostalgia today. I had nostalgia when they beat the U.S. because that was like beating the big, bad wolf. The Americans have so much and this tiny island beat them. That made me feel good," said Fernandez. "Today, it was cool when they got their medals and it's nice that they won two and it's really positive that they won two for the first time in 20 years. People were congratulating me and I was like, ŒTell them, I didn't do anything. They won the medals.'

" I hope it makes the people realize they need to be supportive of women's tennis. These women can have a really good career and hopefully the government and the Olympic Commitee will support them," said Fernandez. "Of all the medals, the silver medal is the hardest because it's right in there between winning and losing. But you have to think in perspective."

Brandi joined Puerto Rico's program in 2002, won singles gold and then teamed up with Castellvi to win doubles gold last year at the CAC Games in El Salvador. She was instrumental in Puerto Rico's move to Group I in Fed Cup play this year.

"In El Salvador it was a clean sweep but the competition was a little tougher here so I'm pleased with the outcome."

Fernandez will play in the Senior U.S. Open, which coincides with her second week of classes. She's an undergraduate psychology major at the University of South Florida, where she is also head women's tennis coach.

Brandi said she'll take a short rest before the U.S. Open. She's going to try to qualify but is reported to be No. 1 on the alternate list. Insiders say she won't get a wild card because she plays for Puerto Rico and not the United States.

"I'm exhausted, but happy," said Brandi. "I feel like I'm on the verge of breaking the top 100 and getting back into tennis again."

It's been a big month for the 26-year-old. She flew to Santo Domingo directly from Louisville, Ky., after winning the $50,000 Louisville Challenger. On Monday she was named USTA Circuit Player of the Week, her third USTA pro circuit title of the summer.

This year, in addition to winning in Louisville, she also captured championships in College Park, Md., in July and Charlottesville, Va., in May. Prior to this year, she won the title in Salt Lake City in 1999, and, in 1998, she captured four titles in Austin, Texas, Peachtree City, Ga., Phoenix and Clearwater, Fla.

She was ranked in the top 50 for six straight years before being sidelined with a wrist injury. She was once ranked as high as 27th in the world at the end of 2000. She won the first WTA event of her career at s'Hertogenbosch in 1999, and in Grand Slam play, she advanced to the fourth round of both the Australian Open and Wimbledon in 2000.

Puerto Rico's Pan Am Games medal count

Puerto Rico has now won 15 medals with three competition days still remaining at these Pan Am Games, already surpassing its 13-medal showing in Winnipeg '99. The athletes have won two gold, four silver and nine bronze.

Here in Santo Domingo, gymnast Tommy Ramos won Puerto Rico's first gold medal in men's gymnastics on the high bar. Quique Figueroa and his wife, Carla Malatrassi, earned the second gold in Hobie 16 sailing, marking the first time since 1971 that any Puerto Rican athlete has won back-to-back gold medals at Pan Am Games. (Weightlifter Fernando Luis Baez won Pan Am gold in 1967 and 1971).

Boxer Alexander "El Pollo" De Jesus has assured Puerto Rico of a silver medal, which could turn to gold, depending upon the outcome of his final on Friday versus Cuba's Mario Kindelan.

Kristina Brandi-Vilmarie Castellvi earned silver in women's doubles tennis as did Luiggy Llanos (decathlon) and gymnast Luis Felipe "Tingui" Vargas (pommel horse). Bronze medal winners include Kristina Brandi (singles tennis), Victor Bernier (individual epee fencing), Victor and David Bernier, Jonathan and Marcos Pena (team epee fencing), Lucas Bennazar (double trap shooting), Mabel Fonseca (wrestling), men's basketball, beach volleyball (Raul Papaleo and Ramon Monchito Hernandez), superheavyweight boxing (Victor Bisbal) and now under 58 kilos taekwondo (Kristian Melendez).

Gabrielle Paese is the Assistant Sports Editor at the San Juan Star. She is the 2000 recipient of the Overseas Press Club's Rafael Pont Flores Award for excellence in sports reporting. Comments or suggestions? Contact Gabrielle at

Her Column, Puerto Rico Sports Beat, appears weekly in the Puerto Rico Herald.

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