Nikola Girke, tall, lean and fit, sunglasses always at the ready, has one more step to take to get to the London Olympics.
The 34-year-old two-time Olympian is at the world windsurfing championships this week on the azure waters of Cadiz, Spain, hoping to steer her RS:X craft to an Olympic berth.
Canada already has an Olympic berth. Had Girke been able to finish in the top 10 at the world championships last December in Perth, Australia, she would automatically have been the Canadian to get the spot (as long as no other Canadian made it to the top 10. See how convoluted Olympic qualifying criteria has become?)
Girke missed that boat after one of her battens broke in the first of 10 races in Perth. She ended up 15th , qualifying a spot for Canada, but never being able to close the gap she wanted to qualify her own spot at the Olympics.
But Girke came away from Perth with an important conviction: that “I absolutely know I have it in me to be a medal contender in London,” she said from Vancouver before leaving for Spain. “It’s all just fine-tuning now.”
On paper, Girke looks to have a healthy shot at gaining the homeside berth. She’s currently ranked 18th in the world, while Dominique Vallee (no, not the Canadian snowboarder but a veteran windsurfer who won gold at the 2007 Pan American Games) is ranked 38th and Laurence Bonneau-Charland, a former gymnast and sailor who adopted RS:X only a couple of years ago, is ranked 116th.
Windsurfing is never a predictable sport, but Girke was a natural on the board. She learned quickly. After finishing 13th in the 470 class with Jen Provan of Toronto at the 2004 Athens Olympics, the young crew showed lots of promise. But Girke did a gusty thing.
She switched to the RS:X class, even though for three years, she lost the funding and sponsorship she had with the 470 boat. She trained alone without a coach.
Still, at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Girke finished 17th, a remarkable effort for a greenhorn. Eleven of the 16 women who finished ahead of her were world or Olympic medalists. “It was a pretty stacked field,” Girke said. “And the conditions were not favourable to me.”
Girke, tall for a windsurfer at 5-foot-10, favours strong winds, but the winds were light in Beijing. Weymouth – the site of the London Olympic sailing events – is a different story, with varying winds and conditions. Girke has won three World Cup races in windsurfing. Two of them have come on the Weymouth course.
“I know I can do it there,” Girke said. “Just getting there is the next hurdle.”
Ken Dool, head coach at the Canadian Yachting Association, says Girke is a powerful competitor that relishes strong winds, but because she weighs a little more than some of her competitors (137 pounds), she’s at a disadvantage in light wind conditions. But Girke has worked to become far more adroit at addressing the light winds.
Dool says the Girke has experience on her side, which will help her to make crucial decisions in changing conditions.
But there is another goal to chase at this event, Dool said. Girke needs to establish, at least to herself, that she’s a top-10 competitor at major events. At the Olympics, the top 10 return for the 11th race, the medal race, in which anything can happen.
Girke sees herself as a completely different athlete than the inexperienced windsurfer she was in Beijing. “I’ve never been in better shape,” she said. “I think that will show on the board. Tactically and strategically, I’m much sharper. It’s all experience that has added up. My confidence has built over the years.”
On the shores of Britain’s little tourist town, Weymouth, Girke won’t be content with top 10. She has set her sights on a medal. The women’s windsurfing event begins on March 22 in Spain.