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Perth 2011 - Canada’s RS-X Champ Nikola Girke shares love and luck

by Shauna McGee Kinney on 22 Nov 2011
Great wind outside, once the RSX sailors get out of the narrow channel - Perth 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships Shauna McGee Kinney
ISAF Sailing World Championships - Canada’s Nikola Girke and Women’s RS:X sailor shares her love and luck as she prepares for Perth 2011.

Since last Friday 18th November the RS:X coaches and teams have been running a four day regatta - a Pre-Worlds event. Nikola Girke (CAN) is one of the competitors using this event to prepare for the Perth 2011 ISAF Sailing World Championships from 3 December to 18 December 2011.

The Pre-Worlds event is a chance for the international RS:X sailors to get to know the venue, test their gear and judge their competition. Now you might have thought judging the wind lines can be tough. Nikola points out that judging the 'weed lines' has been even harder. Turns out that the local Fremantle waters have been choked with bands of sea grass and sea weed, making for some lucky and unlucky upwind and downwind legs. The weed and grass offers competitors the potential catapult from their board downwind. And, brings any athlete to a grueling slow and loss of steerage upwind.

The RS:X competitors will have to chance their luck with the debris during their next couple weeks of training, but are promised smooth sailing in December.

John Longley, Perth 2011 Event Director explains 'We will be trawling for weed in the course areas, particularly the RS:X Centre course off Bathers Bay, both before and during the Worlds to reduce the incidence of weed clumps. We did the same thing successfully during the Perth International Regatta test event last November. Over recent weeks, the weed has been brought in off the reefs by the last of the winter storms so we're probably seeing the worst of it at present. We'll certainly be doing our best to make sure it's as small a problem as possible, but it's a natural occurrence and is one of the many elements of nature that sailors contend with.'

Playing the wildcard: Luck goes both ways. From within the RS:X class, Nikola is considered the women’s wildcard competitor. She’s a threat when it’s windy and was the surprise package at Weymouth and Portland in August of this year. Nikola had an exciting bullet (a first place finish) in the eighth race and kept the heat on the leaders by finishing ninth overall.

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Nikola happened into the RS:X class with a combination luck, perseverance and sacrifice. Her work to the top of the Womens’ international RS:X competition has been indirect at times. Her winning streak started in 1995 as the Women’s Laser 2 World Champion. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t a lead up into the Olympic classes from the Youth or Laser 2 sailing at that time. When Nikola reached the age limit of the youth classes, there was no real lead-up or stepping stone to into one of the Olympic classes. She gave up on competitive sailing and took up recreational windsurfing while she pursued a Bachelor of Human Kinetics degree from the University of British Columbia.

Luck and love of sailing came calling on Nikola’s door shortly after finishing her degree. A friend talked her into coming out to Maui on a holiday and Nikola quickly decided she wanted to live there. Nikola was drawn to the chance of getting into the professional windsurfing circuit. She loved her lifestyle change and immersed herself in the windsurfing competition, the surfing and the lifestyle. Women’s professional windsurfing was not getting the sponsorship, media and funding that other sports were getting. She was competitive and keen to find a long term goal.

Addicted to the goal: Jen Provan from Toronto called in 2001 and asked Nikola to crew for her on the Women’s 470. The team was set on representing Canada at the Athens Olympics. Nikola gave up beautiful Maui and expected to give it a three month trial. Her change came with early success and she was hooked on the 470 dream after the team won the 2001 Canadian Nationals only six weeks into their campaign. Shortly after Nationals, Provan / Girke placed 16th overall at the 2001 World Championships and that was in a large field of 60 women’s teams.

Nikola found that Olympic opportunity brought her the satisfaction of a long term goal. Provan / Girke were in the top 10 at major events including 2003 European 470 Championships, 2004 470 Worlds and won multiple Canadian 470 championships. The team reached their goal and placed 13th in the Women’s 470 Olympic competition among teams with many more years of training and experience.

Going to the Olympics seemed to fulfill that need. The 470 was fun in the wind, but boring in light air. Nikola started to crave the excitement and adrenaline that she so loved when she was windsurfing in Maui. Again, she took a risk and trusted her luck. Nikola jumped ship on the 470 and moved into the RSX class.

Luck comes to those who persevere: When Nikola made the change to the RSX, she lost a lot of the funding and sponsorship that she had as a 470 world competitor. She also had to swallow her pride and started at the back of the fleet. She made it on her own for the first three years, training without a coach. The lack of local and national RS:X competitions and clubs also made the transition from 470 sailing to the RSX class even harder.

The long hours of sailing alone at home were not all fun. Nikola quips, 'When you’re on the RS:X, you’re in control of your own destiny. If you are willing to put in the work, you might reap the rewards.'

The loneliness ends when Nikola joins the class. The RS:X class is one of the most accommodating and welcoming of the Olympic classes. Her solo training was punctuated by camaraderie at the major RSX competitions and some training in Vancouver - Canada with fellow Men’s RS:X sailor Zac Plavsic. Nikola is also part of an international training group, a kind of 'united nations' of sailors that gets together throughout the year. The top training group includes Marina Alabau (SPN), Zofia Klepacka (POL), Wai Kei Chan (HKG) and Lee Korzits (ISR).

Winning is different: It took a long time for Nikola to change a third, fourth, fifth to a first place finish. Now that Nikola is consistently in the front of the fleet, she’s noticed a difference. She had her break through when she understood what being at the front means, 'Winning is different than coming second. It’s different than coming third. It’s another hurdle you need to cross - you are sailing more in the defensive mode rather than attacking or following - because if you are in second you can always follow the first person.'

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Nikola concluded, '[When you’re in first] You figure it out on your own - knowing the whole entire fleet is behind you and whatever you do could cost you that win.'

Nikola’s experience isn’t unique, even RS:X class experts mention observing sailors going round a mark with leads of 200 meters or more looking frightened because they have never been there before. Having never led a fleet before, other sailors have often sailed off to the lay line, then waited for someone to take the lead from them. Nikola’s break-through this time is more than luck.

The Pre-Worlds this weekend in Fremantle will give Nikola that edge to get out in the front at the Perth 2011 Sailing World Championships in a few weeks. Look for Nikola’s hard work and good karma to deliver some unexpectedly wonderful first place finishes from this Canadian.

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You can follow Nikola Girke through her website.
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