Introducing superstar sailor Cecilia Carranza Saroli

Argentina’s Cecilia Carranza Saroli was part of the crew that stole hearts and headlines all over the world at the Olympic Games Rio 2016. Just a year out from the Games, her team-mate Santiago Lange was diagnosed with cancer and had a large part of his lung removed, yet the pair defied the odds and burst through the field to triumph in the Nacra 17 mixed multihull class. Here, the 31-year-old shares what it took to overcome such challenges, how she first fell in love with a river and why even time cannot touch her when she’s on the water. 

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When did you and your 56-year-old team-mate Santiago Lange decide to commit to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020?

I have to tell you that the morning after our medal race [at the Rio 2016 Games] we were watching videos about Tokyo. That is a little bit crazy but Santi straight away was sure about continuing. For me, all the tiredness from eight months of really hard work hit a few days later and I started to doubt.

Before Rio, I had been thinking that I wanted to stop because I wanted to do other things, like being a mother. When I do things, I do them 100 per cent, so it had been difficult for me to pay attention to my family and to normal life. But once I recovered, I understood that the Olympic flame was still burning inside me. And little by little, I am learning to pay a bit more attention to my family, as well as to sailing.

Do you remember when you first fell in love with the sea?

I was practically born on my father’s boat. He has an old classic wooden boat. We are from Rosario [Argentina] and we have a river that runs through the city. So actually I first fell in love with the river. I also have two brothers and one sister who are all older than me, and my father tried to make them sail – but I was the only one who really loved it. We travelled a lot through Argentina when I was young, sailing. Then I started enjoying winning at about 13/14, and I started to try and get better every day. And my Olympic dream started when I was 17 and saw Athens 2004 on TV.

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Is it fair to say that the water is your “happy place”?

The only thing I know is that when I am sailing, I don’t know what time is. I can be sailing for hours and the Third World War can start on the land and I won’t care, I am sailing. There are many days that are really tough at this level. Not every day is enjoyable, but I do also relish going through those tough moments. I work with a really professional team, Santi and our coach Juan de la Fuente, so I feel under pressure all the time, pushing my limits; and I love to be like this. It’s beautiful to be always pushing your limits.

What’s your favourite boat you have ever been on?

I have to say I love the Olympic classes because it’s your own project, everything depends on you. For me, that is amazing. Every Olympic class has really different things but I most like the 49ers and the Nacra.

Santi has said that you deserved the Olympic gold more than him for putting up with his “grumpiness” – how hard was it when he got diagnosed with cancer?

When you make a team, you have to understand that you stop talking about “I” and start talking about “we”. When you start doing that and forget about your individual objectives, you understand that the team is like one person and you always have to push hard to support each other.

I understood what he was going through and I was there, on his side, no matter what. I could have been weak and not been able to stand his grumpy behaviour, but that would have been really bad for the team. I understood he was like that because he was going through a really bad situation, so I did my best to work on myself so I could understand him.

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Did it surprise even you that Santi was back on the boat just 41 days after the operation to remove part of his lung?

I knew he would do it as soon as he could. I didn’t know how long that was going to be but I knew it would be as soon as he could. He loves what he does and that is the best motivation. He is a person who – wherever there is a problem – has a possible solution. He thinks that everything is an opportunity to learn new things. I am lucky to work with him, he is extreme, he always sees a positive possibility even when you think there isn’t one. That is a way to live.

You and Santi are being very strategic at the moment with your racing schedule – how is that working out?

We have been sailing less than our rivals because our team is a little bit older, but we always sail with a lot of focus. It has many positive things and some negative. It is difficult to be in the same rhythm as they [the pair’s rivals] are but we have been enjoying getting time to develop things on the boat and we have been having some good results, which reassures us that we can do it. We just have to be patient.

How have your rivals reacted to this new approach?

There are many people who respect experience and there are some young, talented people who are not so respectful. But we don’t need their respect. We understand everyone is how they want to be and that’s OK. I can see that the older ones, the coaches for instance, understand the game –  that we are not pushing hard now because we can’t push hard all the way [from now to Tokyo]; but they know we will be able to push hard in the difficult moments, when there is a lot of pressure.

Often when you are young you think you can make everything happen, and you don’t understand you have experienced rivals who might be waiting for the right moment.