Planning to be a volunteer, ending up a medalist: Natàlia Via-Dufresne on the '92 Games

Catalan sailor recalls “emotional” opening and medal ceremonies, and basketball Dream Team’s visit to Olympic village

Natàlia Via-Dufresne in 2011 (By Armando Liussi Depaoli)
Natàlia Via-Dufresne in 2011 (By Armando Liussi Depaoli) / Guifré Jordan

Guifré Jordan | Barcelona

July 24, 2022 10:22 AM

If winning an Olympic medal is a dream come true, achieving this feat in your own city is just surreal. Natàlia Via-Dufresne was just 19 when she won the silver medal in 1992 in the Europe Class sailing event.

The Olympic port, where sailing competitions were held, had just been inaugurated for the Barcelona Games, part of the large project to modernize Barcelona

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Indeed, just a few years before her brightest sporting day, when Natàlia began her career, factories, fences, and near-shanty towns sat where the city’s beaches are now found. Also, she had to sail from the city's main port, dangerously placed among much larger boats. 

But within years, she witnessed the creation of a new seafront, ring roads easing transport, and, among other Olympic venues, the place where the medals were awarded and legends were made. 

‘Emotional’ opening and medal ceremonies

“The medal ceremony, at the Olympic port, was very emotional,” Via-Dufresne recalls when talking to Catalan News, explaining that the site had been emptied of boats. “From the podium, you could see all the attendees across the entire port. We had never had such a large audience.”

Days earlier, she waited in another new venue, the Palau Sant Jordi, before parading in the opening ceremony in Montjuïc's Olympic Stadium as part of the Spanish delegation.

“We saw the entire opening ceremony on screens as we waited to march in the parade. We were dying to be out there,” she emphasizes. “In the end, we all entered the stadium together and it was packed. Everyone was cheering us on, they were so passionate... We thought, 'we're so lucky!'”

Michael Jordan and his Dream Team, stars of the Olympic Village

Ahead of competitions, she was offered to either remain at her home in Barcelona or at the Olympic Village – needless to say, she opted to experience the amazing new world temporarily set up just meters away from the Olympic port.

According to her, the dining room, located in the current Olympic Village’s shopping mall, downstairs, was “the most stunning part” due to its size. 

“It was a huge restaurant, all-you-can-eat for 24 hours a day. There was a McDonald's too. You could eat whatever you wanted at any time, it was impressive,” she says, making clear she had never seen such a thing, especially as she was only 19.

For the seven days of competition, she walked or cycled from the Olympic Village to the venue where she fought for glory. Natàlia was able to meet other athletes from Spain and all over the world and form lifelong memories of global superstars such as Michael Jordan. 

“One day, the US men's basketball team visited the Olympic Village, and it was so full of people heading toward them that I could only see them from a distance. I couldn't get any closer,” she explains with a grin. 

Tight competition, first of two medals

The Catalan sailor had success in her sights on the second to last day of the seven-day set of races. The competition was tight, but everlasting Olympic glory awaited her.

“On the last day of the competition, it was obvious I couldn't vie for gold, it was impossible. But silver was doable, and it was clear that if I had a very bad day, I would still make bronze,” Via-Dufresne says from the place where she found success 30 years earlier.

The Catalan sailor went on to win another silver in Athens 2004 in the 470 event and she still competes at a different level with a women’s team in order to promote equality in sport.

“Winning an Olympic medal is what we prepare for. When you compete in an Olympic sport, your goal is to make it to the Games, and once you're there, to get a medal because, sadly, nobody remembers who comes forth.”

She could also taste the most bitter part of the sport, ending 6th and 10th in Sydney 2000 and Beijing 2008, respectively, in the 470 event.

Originally planning to be a volunteer for the Barcelona Olympics

Around 20 years before her last appearance in Olympics, she had registered as a volunteer for the 1992 Games, not expecting she would in the end not be able to fulfill this duty.

Yet, she had time to realize in the training sessions before giving up how much the event vitalized the people of Barcelona, who enthusiastically joined the 100,000-strong network of volunteers. 

Political consensus made the Games possible, something the sailor regrets is not currently the case, meaning a bid for the 2030 Winter Games has not materialized.

Yet, she does not lose hope to once again see sporting events like the one 30 years ago that forever changed her, the city, and the country.