Nikola Girke is part of an exclusive group of Olympic athletes to compete in two different events at the Games. The waters of Howe Sound played a significant role in her development.
The West Vancouver native is set to compete in her third Olympics later this month in the sport of windsurfing and it was her connection to Squamish that helped cement her love of the sport.
“I did the whole sailing dinghys thing all the way through my youth but windsurfing was something I always saw on the water and I thought it was so cool,” she said. “When I was 16 I convinced my dad that we should go to Lake Arenal in Costa Rica and that was where I got my start.”
But it was in Squamish where she honed her craft and learned more from the talented locals.
“When I started windsurfing I would come to Squamish and would hang out there all the time,” she said. “I competed at the Canadian and North American nationals in Squamish and that's where I really first got on the scene. Part of the reason why I loved windsurfing so much is because of the people in Squamish and how much fun the sport was.”
She first qualified for the Olympics in sailing in 2004. Girke went to Athens and competed in the 470 class sailing competition, finishing 13th.
“The first time is really exciting and special,” she said. “But I guess I never thought we could achieve a medal at that point. I knew we could win some races and we finished second in one, but it was more the experience.”
From there, she focused primarily on windsurfing with the goal of qualifying for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. She did have years of experience in the sport but admitted they're two very different styles.
“I thought they were much more similar than they are when I started,” she said. “It's still on the water and you're still using the wind but in sailing you have a mast and in windsurfing you're the mast.”
She eventually qualified for the team, racing in an RSX design and said she was pleased with the unique accomplishment.
“I was pretty ecstatic when I made the team,” she said. “It was a pretty daunting challenge to change sports and many people didn't think I could do it. But after a lot of training and hard work, I pulled it off.”
Girke eventually placed 17th in Beijing and continued to excel in the sport in competitions around the world. She's a five-time Canadian Women's Windsurfing champion and three-time Canadian Yachting Association female sailor of the year. Girke most recently qualified for the 2012 Olympics with a top-10 finish at the 2011 RSX World Championships in Spain.
Girke and the windsurfing world were floored with the announcement that kiteboarding will replace windsurfing for the 2016 Olympics in Brazil.
“We all were really surprised and shocked,” she said. “I have nothing against kiteboarding but to remove windsurfing is the hardest part to swallow.”
Girke said windsurfing has more of a worldwide appeal it was a bad decision to remove it from the Games.
“They kicked out windsurfing without even knowing what kiteboarding is,” she said. “Kiteboarding put in a really great marketing campaign but the sport is still in its infancy stage. There's no youth program for it and you can't even get insurance from an insurance company if you're a kiter. I think they shot themselves in the foot because they don't really know what they signed up for.
“It's a real shame because the windsurfing scene across the world is so huge, we have over 50 countries participating at a World Championships event and so many kids worldwide do the sport with our great youth program and that's been stopped dead. There's definitely not 50 countries in kiteboarding; there's only 11 girls at the World Championships for kiting and only two can actually finish the race.”
Girke said the women on the tour are devastated and she feels sorry for those who narrowly missed the Olympics this year because their dreams have vanished. Despite the loss of windsurfing, Girke said she could always go back to some form of sailing or may even take up kiteboarding for 2016. But for now, she said she's focused on London.
“The sailing venue for London is fantastic,” she said. “There's wind there all the time and you get a really wide range of conditions.”
Girke, who hits the Olympic course next Tuesday (July 31), said her goal is to reach the podium.
Follow Girke on her journey to London by visiting her Facebook fan page or her Twitter handle @NikGoing4Gold.