It’s been nearly 33 years since Peter Holmberg last competed in the Olympic Games — and saw his life change forever.
The St. Thomas native, now 60, took home the silver medal in sailing — specifically, in the men’s single-handed Finn class — at the 1988 Seoul Olympics in South Korea.
Holmberg became the first person from the Virgin Islands to claim an Olympic medal, although that could change in the upcoming Tokyo Games, which began Wednesday (late Tuesday night in the U.S. Virgin Islands). At least three people — one from the USVI, two from the British Virgin Islands — are in contention for medals in Tokyo.
However, Holmberg is still — and always will be — the first, and he admits that the minute that Olympic silver medal was draped around his neck on the stand at Pusan Harbor, his life changed — a moment he still thinks about to this day.
“Shoot yeah, man — it’s the cornerstone of my career and my life,” Holmberg said in an interview with The Daily News. “In the sport of sailing — and this does apply to all other sports as well — you get a medal, it puts you in a league of your own.
“For me, everything changed. I came back home not having thought of what might happen, other than just the goal of achieving my result, but the doors started flying open. The opportunities that came to me … it’s given me my life.”
Holmberg isn’t the first member of his family to compete in the Olympics — his father Dick, who passed away in 2003, sailed for the USVI in the 1972 Munich Games in Germany; and his stepfather Dick Johnson, who passed away in 2005, sailed for the USVI in the 1976 Montreal Games in Canada.
“There were others — Rudy Thompson went, John Hamber went [who both sailed for the USVI in the 1968 Mexico City Games], and others,” Holmberg said. “So you grow up with Olympians around you, and you grow up believing you can do it. That’s when the dream started.”
However, Holmberg didn’t start thinking and planning for real until he was attending college at Sonoma State University in California, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in management in 1982.
“I was like 20 years old, and 1984 was on the horizon,” he said. “So I finished college, came back home and put together a campaign.”
He competed in the 1984 Los Angeles Games, finishing a respectable 11th out of 36 entries in the men’s Finn class — good, but not good enough for Holmberg.
“I did a scrappy, last-minute campaign,” he said. “I had a year to train, had no money, no support from the island. Went there, did it, saw it and finished 11th — including beating the world champion [Denmark’s Lasse Hjortnæs, who was 12th in the L.A. Games].
“I had to drive back cross country [after the Olympics], and had three days of thinking about it. That’s when I formed my plan. If I could do that with a very shoestring campaign budget and planning, then I thought I could achieve something really good with proper training.”
So Holmberg put together his plan — and it wasn’t one that followed the norms of the day.
“I didn’t follow form,” he said. “Virgin Islanders are proud of this — we’re not going to beat America with money, resources, coaching. If you’re going to beat them, you can’t follow form, you’ve got to do something different. You’ve got to be smarter, not work harder. That’s what I think I achieved pretty well.”
According to Holmberg, there were two keys to his 1988 campaign — buying a Korean-made Finn sailboat, the same ones that were used in the Seoul Games, then competing in a pre-Olympic regatta at Pusan a year before the Seoul Games.
“It was a dress rehearsal,” Holmberg said. “That was the all-important thing. I saw exactly what the conditions were, and they weren’t what the brochure said. It was going to be rough and tough, and I finalized my plan to do all my training [in the U.S. Virgin Islands].”
Instead of sailing in events around the world over the next 12 months, Holmberg found a spot in the USVI — Pillsbury Sound, the channel between St. Thomas and St. John — that closely replicated the sailing conditions in Pusan Harbor, and trained there.
“The current funnels through there, and half the day it’s going against the wind and making mountainous waves,” Holmberg said. “Korea was going to be rough, and we’ve got a backyard here that’s rough.
“The Americans were doing their regattas around the states and getting good results. I just came here, found a guy from Argentina [Gonzalo Campero, who finished 17th in the Seoul Games], gave him a boat and we trained here for a year.
“That’s the reason for my success — doing the recon and the smart analysis of what it took to win, and realizing that I needed to go off script and do things my way,” he said.
Once the Seoul Games began, Holmberg had to put in a little work and catch a few breaks — he finished 17th in the first race, and had a premature start in the fourth race (a result that was later dropped under the scoring rules).
With one race remaining, it was down to Holmberg and five others battling for the medals — Hjortnaes, Spain’s Jose Luis Doreste, New Zealand’s John Cutler, Great Britain’s Stuart Childerley and Germany’s Thomas Schmid.
“The final day, the final race, the final hour,” Holmberg said. “Back then, the races were about 2-3 hours long … and there was about six of us who could medal, so there were going to be some unhappy people. The pressure’s on, and the wind’s huge. I was being careful, because I didn’t want to turn over.
“About halfway through the race — and I’ll never forget the moment — we’re rounding the top mark and I see that I’m in 7th-8th place. I see the guys in front of me and I thought, ‘These are all guys I’m tied with; right now, I’m not getting a medal.’
“I’d been cautious until now, and got the half the race left. I threw away caution, went down this leg and passed everybody except one guy. Fastest I’ve ever gone the whole week, and that was no fear — what did I have to lose?
“That was my moment — luckily, I found it halfway through the race, and I fought hard and came that close to getting the gold. That’s my moment I’ll never forget, and the lessons from it.”
Holmberg finished second in the final race, just behind Cutler, who earned the bronze medal, and ahead of Doreste, the event’s gold medalist.
“I went there hoping not to embarrass my country,” Holmberg said. “I was praying I’d get a Top 10. All of a sudden, I go ‘I just got a silver medal.’ It started to hit me on the long sail in, just crying and thinking about it. It was a life-changing moment.”
It’s a life that’s taken Holmberg around the world, sailing in different events — even on challengers for the America’s Cup, the pinnacle of sailboat racing, three times — and consulting for different teams and clubs.
“I’ve had the best life anybody could dream of,” Holmberg said. “I’ve traveled the world, sailed for different teams — I sail for a living, doing what I love.”
— Contact Sports Editor Bill Kiser at 340-714-9117 or email email@example.com.