The Malta Independent 5 August 2021, Thursday

50 Shades of Greats: ‘Sports transmits a positive vibe’

Simon Farrugia Sunday, 21 March 2021, 11:00 Last update: about 6 months ago

The Malta Independent on Sunday meets JEAN-PAUL FLERI SOLER. He talks about the early days of his career, GSSE and Olympic participation, his coaching career, family and also his passion about foiling.

Jean-Paul Fleri Soler was born on 5 June 1964 in Guardamangia. He is married to Clarissa née Jones and they have two children, Ella and Edward.

The first thing that Jean-Paul talked about was his childhood memories and the importance of his father George, whom he considers as his role model. "It was a very normal and active childhood. My father George used to constantly encourage us to try different kinds of sport. I was brought up in Valletta since both my grandparents live in the capital city. I was very close to my cousins, who also lived in Valletta, and together with by elder brother and sister we had some wonderful childhood experiences. We used to pass a lot of time in the streets playing football during the winter months and summer was more reserved for fishing and going to the beach."

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Fleri Soler then spoke about his experience at school. "I started attending St Joseph School in Rabat and then attended St Edward's College in Vittoriosa, where for the first three years I was a border. When I finished College I moved on the Sixth Form where I studied Computer Science."

But how did interest in sailing start for Jean-Paul. Was it an immediate liking to the sport or did he practise other sport before choosing sailing? "We did all kinds of sport but obviously summer was more attached to water sport. We used to rent sailing boats and dad used to take me out. We used to enjoy ourselves a lot during the summer holidays. But the turning point was when I started attending St Edward's. I was a border at the College and at the age of 10 we started the Sailing Club. I was lucky that there I met the Ripard's brothers Paul and Christian who influenced me a lot. From there we also kickstarted a Dinghies competition against Stella Maris College."

And what about the competitive aspect? "Paul Ripard senior was a friend of my dad and got the first windsurfers to Malta. I was present when these arrived and it was challenging just trying to put these together. I was about 12 at the time and dad convinced Paul to sell him one of them. And that was it. At first it was difficult to manage since I could hardly lift the sail. But as time passed the equipment was made lighter. At the age of 14 it looked pretty obvious that my number one sport was windsurfing. It was in the mid 70s that windsurfing became very popular on the island and all around the world. By then most sailing events started to include windsurfing and within a few years we used to be around 200 boards competing in different categories and age groups."

Jean-Paul talked about his forays both locally and abroad and what goes with them. "I started competing both locally and abroad from the age of 16. There are too many unbelievable experiences to recall, especially abroad. As regards difficult moments there were a few as is the norm in all competitive sport. There were ups and downs as the equipment was constantly changing, new materials and technology being introduced. One particular difficult moment was the Cyprus GSSE. I had won bronze in Monaco two years before so we were totally geared up. The Cypriots kept changing programme all the time trying to choose the weather conditions best suited to their sailors. On the final day I was leading in the windsurfing class and the Cypriot's were leading in the Laser class so they changed the programme to secure the Laser class and we were left waiting ashore. By the time we started the wind stopped and the races were called off. A scary moment was when we were training for the Giro d'Italia Marathon Regatta; we decided to sail from Mellieha around Gozo and back and I found myself stranded during the middle of the night on the North side of the sister island. But these are experiences which made me what I am today."

Did Fleri Soler feel that he was invincible? "The local competition was always very important, but my challenge was mainly abroad; competing against the very best, which was no walk in the park. I had to be prepared both physically and mentally since competition was very tough."

Undoubtedly for Jean-Paul the challenge of participating in the Summer Olympics was a big one. "Yes this was the highlight of my career. I took part in 1988 and 1992. In 1988 it was in Seoul. To be honest I had been preparing four years but they changed the equipment and I had to start from scratch. For the 1988 Olympics I tried my best to convince the MOC to attend the pre-Olympics. But there were no finances. I tried also to be there at least two weeks before the event started so I could train in those conditions, but I was there just three days before. There the conditions were totally different. The waves and currents are different. But having said this I ended in mid-fleet, which considering was not a bad result."

"In Olympic sailing you compete against the best athlete of each country since there is only one representative from each nation. This makes the competition tougher. Up till a year before, whenever possible, I used to train with the Italian team and Paco Wirz. At Seoul he was fighting for third place and I finished around 12 places behind him, although a year before in training we were neck to neck. When I had a chat with him he told me that he had been in Seoul training for the past six months."

"As regards Barcelona 1992; it was close to home, in the Mediterranean. So I upped my performance. I also had as a coach an ex-national English champion who used to come over every other month. But the experience was once again a memorable one."

Jean-Paul also found time to talk about his participation in the GSSE. "Yes this was another experience and after grabbing Bronze in Monaco, came the Cyprus Games in which the locals played foul. One has to keep in mind that sailing is one of the sports that is not always included in the Games for the Small Nations. This normally depends on how the host nation performs in this sport. But in 1993 the Games were held in Malta and I was the proud winner of the Gold medal. It was an incredible achievement striking gold on my homeland."

Fleri Soler was blunt when asked about the Għażliet Sportivi Nazzjonali. "I never lobbied to win an honour or recognition. I remember when in the mid-80s I was finalist and the honour was won by Pawlu Mifsud of the Billiards & Snooker Association. That year I thought that I deserved the award. I had participated with flying colours in the Malta-Sicily Windsurf Race, the GSSE achievement and many more. I never showed disrespect and I've got a great admiration for Mifsud; but in my opinion sport is a physical thing. And maybe there should be different categories between different types of sport."

After the 1993 GSSE Fleri Soler was being encouraged to go to Atlanta for the 1996 Olympics. "Yes, but I decided to offer my services as a coach. In fact, I was for three years Andrew Wilson's coach. Around that time John Ripard of Malta Young Sailors Club asked me if I was interested to start coaching the Optimist class. What attracted me to this was that I would be given a chance to pass my previous experiences to the younger generation, as children can start sailing in the Optimist at the age of six until 16 years old. This was all new to me and quite a challenge as I had not sailed this boat before. Through MYSC we have achieved many incredible results and made Malta proud on various occasions in the international sailing arena namely wins at GSSC in Optimist and Laser. Last year was one of the best with Richard Shultheis nearly winning the World championships, finishing in second place. This was one of Malta's highest achievements in international sailing. Richard started at MYSC at the age of six and I coached him and his two sisters for many years. Richard's elder sister also won female world title three years ago in Portugal's World championships."

But how is a normal routine day for Jean-Paul nowadays? "I work with a shipping company from Monday to Friday. During the weekend it's practically coaching Optimist sailing and I am now dedicating more time to something new which is foiling (windsurfing), an innovative sport, which is also generating a lot of interest and will be included at the next Olympic games."

What does Jean-Paul think about the interest in this sport and above all what lies ahead? "In the past sailing was a summer sport. But it is now slowly changing. At the Malta Young Sailors Club we have tasters' sessions and we are always oversubscribed with between 80 to 90 newcomers coming over. When summer is over we normally keep between 15 and 20. But lack of facilities are holding the sport from going forward. We have been promised time and time again and nothing ever materialized."

And turning onto more personal matters, Jean-Paul talked about his family with great pride. "I was lucky to have two children, very active and who also turned out to be very good in sailing. Moreover, my wife was always very supportive. Both my children competed in the Optimist and achieved many top results. Ella is a bronze medallist at GSSC and winner of Euromed international regatta and Edward was also a winner at Euromed two years later. So family life during their childhood was great, since we used to travel for events together. Now they are grown-ups and both have gone their own way, they still sail and windsurf and just the same committed; though they do not compete at the top level."

Jean-Paul also mentioned pasta as his favourite plate. "Yes I love all types of pasta. And what about travelling and the best spots that he loves most? "Being so close I prefer Italy. It is a wonderful country and there are lots of places to visit and a lot to see."

But does Jean-Paul have any other hobbies and what does he prefer doing in his free time? "In my free time I try to keep myself fit as much as I can. I train regularly at the gym though at the moment due to Covid restrictions I can't do so. I also enjoy riding my motorbike locally and also travel overseas regularly. During the summer months I tend to incline more towards snorkelling and windsurfing. And above all, as already said, now I'm into foiling, which is a new sport and which is going to be including in the 2024 Paris Olympic Games."

Fleri Soler brought to an end this interesting interview with some wise words. "Sport is very important. It keeps you active, young and on your toes. It makes you independent and resilient. Sport transmits a positive vibe. It is very important that we take the chance and practise sport and why not, at a top level." 


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