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Paris2024: Two Kiwi kiteboarders added to the NZ Olympic Sailing team after successful Appeal

by NZ Olympic Committee and 10 Jun 02:53 PDT 10 June 2024
Justina Kitchen - NZL - Kiteboard - Day 6 - 2023 Allianz Sailing World Championships, The Hague, August 16, 2023 © Sailing Energy / World Sailing

Justina Kitchen and Lukas Walton-Keim become New Zealand's first ever Kite Olympians.

The pair have been added to the NZ team for the Paris 2024 Olympics, and will compete in the women's and men's kitefoil events, which have been included on the Olympic sailing schedule for the first time.

They join Tom Saunders (ILCA 7), Greta Pilkington (ILCA 6), Jo Aleh and Molly Meech (49erFX), Isaac McHardie and Will McKenzie (49er), Micah Wilkinson and Erica Dawson (Nacra 17), Veerle ten Have (women's windfoil), and Josh Armit (men's windfoil) in the sailing team.

Today's announcement means that for the first time in at least 20 years that New Zealand will be represented at the Olympic Sailing regatta in all the Olympic sailing events in which New Zealand sailors have won a qualification place.

At Paris2024 New Zealand will be represented in nine of the 10 sailing events. Only two nations Great Britain and Germany have qualified in all ten events. France gains automatic entry as Host nation. Five nations (Spain, USA, Italy, China and New Zealand) have qualified in nine of the Sailing events.

For Justina Kitchen (nee Sellers) her Olympic selection comes after her third Olympic campaign, and a very promising start at Youth Worlds level where she was selected, aged 16yrs, to represent New Zealand in the RS:X Windsurfer. However in the intervening years she suffered repetitive shoulder injuries which disrupted her training and competition.

She switched to kiteboarding and has finished fifth at the 2019 European championships and has had two top-10 finishes at the world championships

But Kitchen's injury bogey struck again late last year, and her Olympic dream again seemed to be in tatters when a freak training accident left her facing up to a year on the sidelines.

Nine months later, she's overcome the odds to make that dream come true, with the Auckland sailor set to make her Games debut in the fastest sailing class that will be on display at Paris 2024.

It's been anything but plain sailing, however, with Kitchen rupturing both her anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) and medial collateral ligament (MCL) only days before the European championships in Weymouth in September 2023.

"I was preparing for the regatta, which was one of our Olympic selection events, and it was just a very bad crash. In five years of kitefoiling, I'd never landed in that position before," Kitchen says.

"The board flipped over, which would never normally happen, landed on my leg and dislocated it, bending it backwards the wrong way."

She recalls the searing pain in her left leg as she struggled to stay afloat.

"I was really lucky to have been out training with a group of Aussies, Brits, and Norwegians, and they knew straight away that something was very wrong. [Australian kitefoiler] Breiana [Whitehead] jumped in the water to keep me from sinking as I was unable to swim. I remember saying to her, 'I'm going to miss the Olympics' and crying uncontrollably. It was devastating."

Some specialists recommended surgery and up to a year on the sidelines, but Kitchen, the daughter of double Olympic medallist Rex Sellers, refused to accept defeat.

"I can remember being a very small child and my dad going to the Olympics and, as a preschooler, deciding that's what I wanted to do," she says.

"For me, it's been kind of a lifetime of wanting to do this one thing."

Sellers is still one of her biggest supporters - whether it's offering sailing advice or helping to take care of daughters Florentina, 8, and Lucette, 7, when Kitchen is training or competing.

She was introduced to kitefoiling by her husband Chris in 2018, after taking a break from sailing to get married, finish her degree, and start a family.

Kitchen missed out on selection in the windsurfing class for the 2012 London Olympics after having a third reconstructive surgery on her shoulder and switched to kitefoiling after the International Sailing Federation (now World Sailing) announced windsurfing would be replaced by the new class in Rio de Janeiro.

She would again be disappointed as the governing body made a late U-turn, reinstating windsurfing for Rio 2016 some months later.

"It's been quite a long journey but experiencing the highs and lows of two previous campaigns has made me mentally stronger," Kitchen says. "When it's harder to get there, it makes it all the more significant, and being selected is everything I imagined it would be!"

Justina Kitchen becomes just the third second generation New Zealand Olympic sailor, to compete at an Olympic regatta. The other two being Jon Bilger (1992 Mens 470) and Emma Jones (2016 Mixed Nacra 17).

Walton-Keim spent much of 2023 off the water following surgery to repair a torn right meniscus he had been battling for more than two years.

"It is a big relief to finally get to this point and to have the opportunity to represent my country at the Olympics," Walton-Keim said.

"There have been moments where it felt like it wouldn't happen, but this proves to myself that I can do it. I am very grateful for the support of the incredible team behind me."

That team includes partner and Olympic pole vaulter Eliza McCartney, who has had to overcome injuries of her own to be included in the team for Paris where she will be looking to add to her bronze medal from Rio.

"I've always admired the athletes who compete at the Olympics, but that admiration has certainly grown since I've known Eliza," Walton-Keim says.

"She is so professional and experienced now that, even though we are very different people competing in very different sports, I do try to learn as much from her as I can."

Walton-Keim will spend the next few weeks training and testing gear in Marseille and Hyeres and says Olympic fans are in for a treat once the kitefoiling competition starts on August 4.

"It's by far the fastest Olympic class there is - we're reaching speeds of 40 knots and doing 30 knots even when there's only a breath of wind," he says.

"It's an easy sport to follow and to get behind, and it is going to look pretty cool on TV!"

Lukas Walton-Keim made a successful Appeal to the NZ Sports Disputes Tribunal, who issued a decision less than a fortnight ago. He appealed to the Sports Disputes Tribunal as soon as he learned he had initially not been selected by Yachting New Zealand, on May 2.

A Hearing was held under urgency on May 27, 2024, and the 22 page Reasons for the Decision were released two days later. The appeal was successful on the grounds that Yachting NZ erred in their assessment of the strength of the fleet at the Mens Kiteboard European Championships, and had discounted two top sailors, in the fleet who had actually competed.

In its Decision the Tribunal stated that "the applicable nomination policy was properly followed and/or implemented by YNZ, except to the extent there were one or more errors of fact which may have affected the nomination decision."

"The Tribunal therefore upholds the appeal and refers the question of nomination back to YNZ for determination using the correct facts in relation to the quality of the field at the second selection regatta, the 2023 European Championships (the quality of that field being a matter that the selectors were and are entitled to have regard to in their consideration of the Secondary Objective at clause 4.2 of the YNZ nomination criteria)."

World Sailing extended the date for NZ Olympic Committee to confirm its final Sailing quota take up from May 31 2024 to June 5, 2024.

Yachting NZ's Olympic Committee and its separate Olympic Selection Panel, reconsidered their decision to not make a selection after being advised of the Sports Disputes Tribunal Decision after its issue date on May 29.

Sailing at Paris 2024 is due to get underway in Marseille on July 28th and conclude on August 8th.

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