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The 14-year-old girl making waves in African sailing

From Errol Barnett, CNN
updated 9:05 AM EDT, Mon April 2, 2012
Maria Mabjaia, 14, won the bronze medal in the women's laser radial sailing event at the All-Africa Games last year. Maria Mabjaia, 14, won the bronze medal in the women's laser radial sailing event at the All-Africa Games last year.
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Maria Mabjaia's bronze sailing medal was one of the surprises of the All-Africa Games
  • The 14-year-old only learned to sail because her mother worked at a yacht club
  • Her story is inspiring other Mozambicans from modest backgrounds to sail

(CNN) -- A teenager who only picked up sailing to keep out of mischief while her mother worked at a yacht club has become a sporting success story in Mozambique.

Maria Mabjaia, 14, won the bronze medal in the women's laser radial sailing event at the All-Africa Games last year, and was subsequently named Sports Person of the Year at her country's sports awards.

Her rapid success has seen her travel as far away as Australia and New Zealand to sail in tournaments -- a far cry from the humble village of Maracuene Bolaza, from which Maria regularly makes the 40km trip to train at the Maputo Marine Club.

What I intended to do was keep her away from mischief. Thank God she got to where she is
Maria's mother, Maria Mabjaia senior

Despite being blessed with thousands of kilometers of coastline, sailing is not a common pastime in Mozambique, a former Portuguese colony is south east Africa.

Although she loves the sea, it is likely Maria would never have learned to sail were it not for the fact her mother, also named Maria, worked at the yacht club.

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"I took her there to have fun, to stop her from staying home and just sleeping all the time," said her mother. "I did not expect anything -- what I intended to do was keep her away from mischief. Thank God she got to where she is."

Maria's specialty is sailing Optimists -- small yachts typically used by young people to learn to sail. She picked up the skill so quickly due to her dedication to training, she said -- a disciplined approach enforced by her mother.

"She does not let me miss practice," said Maria. "If you do not miss practice, those who are experienced miss practice and get weaker."

Decio Muianga, one of the club's directors, said Maria had become a national cause celebre following her unexpected success at September's All-Africa Games, held in Mozambique.

"Everyone reacted -- everyone was surprised. She was just 13 years old. No one was expecting a girl coming from a poor background to get a medal," he said. "Some of the sailors had been competing for five years, and Maria only had a year and half of training, and she managed to get to the medals. This was the surprise of the All-Africa Games."

Watch also: Maputo's changing skyline

No one was expecting a girl coming from a poor background to get a medal
Decio Muianga, Maputo Marine Club director

Her composure under pressure had played a large part in her success, he said.

"Maria doesn't feel the pressure when she has to do something," he said. "The other kids felt the pressure because there were another 13 countries racing for the medal."

Muianga said the club's membership used to be mostly made up of foreigners -- diplomats and development workers -- but it had been actively pursuing an outreach program to engage more young people in sailing. While many of the new recruits came from disadvantaged backgrounds, the club would cover the fees of the most promising, in the hope they would act as ambassadors for sailing.

Maria's rapid success would go a long way to attracting other young Mozambicans to the sport, he said.

"For the normal citizens of Maputo, when they look to this club, they always think this is a fancy club," he said. "Normally sailing clubs are like golf clubs, they're for rich people. But we're slowly changing this perception."

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