Young alumna CJ Perez ’21 has been on a tear, shattering milestone after milestone during her meteoric ascent in professional sailing.
Last October, after competing with the United States team at the Spain Sail Grand Prix, the 18-year-old became the youngest athlete to ever compete in SailGP. She’s also the first American woman and first Latina to do so, and one of only six female athletes internationally to ever race onboard a F50 foiling catamaran.
Her feats have received national media attention for ushering in a new era of diversity in the traditionally white male-dominated sport. “It means a lot that I can compete and represent not only Hawai‘i, but females and Latino communities on such a global scale,” Perez said. “I really want to see more people, like myself, get into sailing and pursue it to the highest level.”
In just a few years, Perez has established herself as a fierce hydrofoil sailor, which involves flying above the water at blistering speeds. In that capacity, she’s set to compete with the SailGP Team at the United States Sail Grand Prix on March 26 and 27.
SailGP is the world’s top sailing league, with eight national teams competing in races throughout the season. With this final competition of the season, the winning team will take home $1 million in prize money.
So how did this recent Punahou graduate wind up a sailing superstar while still a teenager?
Perez learned to sail at age 13, which is late for professional sailors. She’s not from a sailing family – in fact, no one in her immediate family, including her siblings Matthew ’13, Andrew ’19 and Sarah ’19, knows how to sail. But she grew up near the water in Hawai‘i Kai, seeing other kids on boats, and begged her parents to let her take sailing lessons over a spring break while in middle school.
From that initial instruction, her career took off. “In the beginning, I was just doing it for fun,” she said. “I didn’t think it was going to turn into what it did, but my coach saw a lot of potential in me. He said I had natural gift for sailing, and I saw it too.”
After just nine months, she raced in the 2018 North American championships and ended up winning the competition, becoming the first female athlete to claim the title. She then went on to capture the 2019 World Championships and the 2021 WASZP U.S. National Championship. She also was selected to compete and be part of the foiling exhibition at the 35th America’s Cup Endeavour Finals in Bermuda in 2017.
She was named to the United States SailGP Team while still a senior at Punahou, but she only became eligible to race after she turned 18 last September. She was picked after taking part in SailGP’s Women’s Pathway Program, which promotes gender diversity. Her first time competing with the U.S. team was in October, in Spain, with the Americans placing second after the Australian team. “I was thrown on board racing my first day,” she said. “But I love the butterflies you get in your stomach when you’re on a start line racing with the best people in the world.”
The adrenaline rush got her in the zone, as she recalls the scene during the highly charged, two-day race. Windy and choppy conditions caused the Spanish team to capsize. Wildly cheering crowds. Stationed in the sixth position, communicating through earpieces with her teammates, whom she describes as all “super intelligent sailors.”
“When I’m with SailGP, it’s the best feeling ever because you’re seriously going so fast. It’s the fastest I’ve ever gone,” she said. “I can’t wait for future events.”
Leading up to this year’s SailGP final in San Francisco, Perez trained at home at Maunalua Bay and Kane‘ohe Bay on her one-person hydrofoiling boat, with her mentor, Harald von Sydow. Although her boat is far smaller and less high-tech than the SailGP boat, it still allows her to fly over the water. Her focus is to maintain a peak mindset, and it’s this that sets her apart.
“If she sets a goal, she will accomplish it,” von Sydow said. “CJ has always had incredible dedication and focus – since she was 12. She naturally learns fast, most likely from her mindset, she overcomes mistakes, learns from those and ascends.”
Perez says she’s kept a journal since she learned to sail. Sometimes, she reads her early entries and is amazed how far she’s come. “My brothers used to ask me what I wanted out of sailing, and I just thought of it as something fun to do,” she said. “To see where I am now, and the fact that I was selected to be on the U.S. team at such a young age – I’m really grateful. I hope to be an inspiration to others to show them that you don’t have to come from a sailing family to pursue sailing on a professional level. It just takes hard work, determination and curiosity that will move you forward and into the top.”
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