From left, Rolex Watch U.S.A. President and CEO Stewart Wicht with 2012 Rolex Yachtswoman of the year Jennifer French and U.S. Sailing President Tom Hubbell.
SAN FRANCISCO – At an emotional ceremony Feb. 26 at the St. Francis Yacht Club in San Francisco, Johnny Heineken of Larkspur, Calif., and Jennifer French of St. Petersburg, Fla., were celebrated as U.S. Sailing’s 2012 Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year.
Formally announced in January after being chosen for their outstanding on-water sailing accomplishments in 2012, the honorees were joined by family, friends, sailing dignitaries, fellow sailors and members of the media for a luncheon program.
Heineken, the 2012 Kiteboarding Course Racing World Champion, and French, the 2012 Paralympic Silver Medalist in the SKUD-18 class, each gave heartfelt speeches after being awarded specially engraved stainless steel and platinum Rolex Oyster Perpetual Yacht-Masters, symbolic of their achievements in excellence, by Rolex Watch U.S.A. President and CEO Stewart Wicht.
“I am so honored to be amongst the fantastic sailors who were nominated in 2012 and even more honored to win,” said French. “It’s a huge move forward for disabled sailing, the only sport where sailors can leave their wheelchairs and prosthetic limbs behind and go out and compete against able-bodied people; that’s why it attracts me.”
French took several seconds to leave her own wheelchair to stand during her acceptance speech, utilizing a neuroprosthetic system she helped pioneer after a 1998 snowboarding accident left her a quadriplegic.
French called her Paralympic silver medal performance “a fantastic journey,” and said she couldn’t have done it without crew JP Creignou of St. Petersburg, and many others who supported them.
“We were standing on their shoulders and fortunate for our outcomes. To gain a silver medal…it was not only an honor to represent Team USA but also an honor to follow in the footsteps of (2005 Rolex Yachtsman) Nick Scandone and his legend as well.”
Scandone’s wife, Mary Kate Scandone, had introduced French, saying, “For Jen to achieve her goals as a disabled sailor is amazing.”
Nick Scandone, who died in 2009, won a Paralympic gold medal and was the first-ever disabled sailor presented this award. French is the second.
Heineken took the stage after being introduced by 2011 Rolex Yachtsman of the Year Bill Hardesty, who said, “Johnny has taken kiteboarding to the next level; he makes it look easy.”
In fact, Heineken is a back-to-back kiteboarding course racing world champion (2011, 2012) after spending most of his life windsurfing and sailing. It wasn’t until 2009 that he learned to kiteboard.
“Kiteboarding is an evolution of sailing, not a new sport,” said Heineken, “and the fact that everyone is seeing it that way is pretty special. I’m amazed to have my name added to a list of sailors I’ve grown up idolizing.”
Heineken said winning one world championship was exciting but it was about “giving it a little more last year to win again” that was especially fulfilling.
“Sailing has always been about speed to me,” he said, adding that he started out windsurfing with his father and progressed to racing a 29er in high school. “I’ve been working with the best guys to stay on top of the game, and I’m fortunate that many of them are from the Bay area here. We’re seeing the sport take off, on the racing side especially; people are noticing they can go sailing in lighter and lighter conditions and still have fun. Kiteboard course racing is popping up all over in little clusters of local fleets.”
This was the second consecutive year that the awards were presented at the St. Francis Yacht Club.
Established in 1961 by U.S. Sailing and sponsored by Rolex Watch, U.S.A. since 1980, U.S. Sailing's Rolex Yachtsman and Yachtswoman of the Year awards are considered the sport's ultimate recognition of an individual’s outstanding on-the-water achievements for the calendar year.