Nikola Girke 2-time Canadian Olympian & Windsurfer
by Nikola Girke
I learned how to swim from my dad. He was a swimmer in his youth and when I was young we always went to the beach in the summer. I also took swimming lessons at the local pool. My first real attempts of windsurfing were made when I was 16 on Lake Arenal in Costa Rica. I say real attempts, because I did try it several times before then, but don’t really remember much. My mom actually told me (reminded me) this year about how when I was 11, I found a windsurf board advertised in the classifieds in the paper and I used all my money that I made from my paper route to buy it. I had no idea what it was (a complete adult set-up) that I bought and once I got it to the beach and rigged, and in the water, there was no way I could lift the sail out of the water. I tried and tried, but failed. I don’t think I tried windsurfing again till Costa Rica. And although I didn’t windsurf yet…I was obsessed with it. I wanted to do it. My dad and I went on a trip to Costa Rica, he wanting to check out Volcano Arenal…and since I was reading all the windsurf magazines, I saw that Lake Arenal was a hotspot for windsurfing. So I told my dad that I knew how to windsurf, I needed him convinced so we’d go there. However, it was a bit of a white lie…and once we got there, my dad wanted to see how I’d fair. It was windy, I rented short board gear (that’s all they had) and well, 8 hours later, I was water starting. I couldn’t let my dad find out that I actually hadn’t windsurfed before.
I was a sailor all through my youth, sailing and competing on the 2 person dinghy the Laser 2. After high school, my sailing partner and I went separate ways and it was so much easier to do a sport by yourself than always trying to organize with someone else. I saw the windsurfers with their colorful sails zipping across the bay on the windy days…and that was it. I wanted to be a windsurfer. My passion for water, windsurfing and sailing could be described in several words; adrenalin, fear, triumph, free, alive, battling the elements, always a challenge, beautiful and scenic, exhausting, thrilling, – I just always had the hugest smile on my face when around the water.
When I started windsurfing, there wasn’t much in the way of beginner boards etc, so I just got on any board and tried. You have to be relentless in your efforts, windsurfing is not easy and requires a lot of strength, determination and time at the beginning. Nowadays there is excellent beginners kit – a board that lets you stand on it easily and sails that are small enough (and light) that one can pull the sail out of the water no problem – over and over again. Unless you’ve seen a lot of windsurfing and watched how its done, it’s best to get some lessons. Being taught the basics just accelerates the learning curve so much and you’ll be sailing in no time. Don’t be afraid to fall – it’s all part of the process and it’s quite fun. Falling is something you’ll always do…cause if you stop falling…you might not be pushing yourself to try new things or go faster etc. Windsurfing is about commitment – to perform a gybe, one needs to commit to it and not back off.
I guess I’ve learned that it’s a whole lot of hard work – if it were easy, everyone would do it. There are a lot of sacrifices one makes in order to fulfill this goal/dream, it takes years of hard work, dedication, determination, money, etc etc. The struggles and accomplishments are all part of the journey that shape who you become, as a resilient athlete can perform no matter what is thrown at them.
Switching sports (disciplines) from crewing on a 470 to Olympic Windsurfing was a very daunting and humbling experience. I lost most of my support from my federation and sponsors and pretty much got the feeling that nobody believed in me and my abilities – which really only made my challenge even harder… I had to believe in myself more than ever, and whilst others are doubting you, that’s always tough…especially when I went from top 10 in the world in the 470 to tail end Charlie in the windsurfing fleet. Definitely a tough one to swallow. But, through hard work, I proved I could do it.
The Olympics were great experiences, but my ultimate goal is to win a medal at the London 2012 Olympic Games. Beyond that, I hope to encourage more people to get into windsurfing. I would love to give back to the community and actively pursue my other passions and have a “normal” career too. Being looked at as a role model it’s one of those things that I never really thought of, but is true. I have given numerous talks and presentations on my Olympic journeys to kids at schools and at local yacht clubs, whether it’s at an awards ceremony or at a club BBQ, groups of all kinds and at corporate functions. I think my story has proven that one can achieve whatever one sets their mind to…that making the Olympic team twice in two different sports, can be done against many odds. I followed my heart, set high goals for myself and followed my dreams.
But most of all, I enjoyed the journey along the way for the most part. During this journey I found my motto: DARE TO DREAM, DARE TO ACHIEVE, DARE TO SUCCEED. I believe my motto works for anything and could for everyone.
Everyone has dreams, but one must take risks and sacrifices when trying to achieve that dream. And that sometimes is the biggest challenge…To take that leap of faith or risk knowing that nothing’s guaranteed. However, it does open the door, whether you achieve success or don’t. But at least you gave it your best shot and can never look back and say you didn’t try to follow your dreams.
About Water Safety
I have mixed feelings on Lifejackets (depends on what type of windsurfing you are doing) – definitely you would never wear a lifejacket for “wavesailing” as you wouldn’t want to get caught underneath the sail with a lifejacket on. I only wear a lifejacket when it’s super windy – and more so because it gives me a bit of cushion on impact should I have a big crash and it gives me a sense of security and keeps me warmer on cold windy days.
Things you should keep in mind when windsurfing:
- Have your food and water.
- Letting people know about your plan (where you plan on going, and for how long).
- Wear weather appropriate clothes – wet and windy can lead to one getting cold really quick, and then one loses energy. Pretty important to stay warm as when learning one needs all the energy to just try the sport.
- Whenever I get catapulted, I end up putting my hands over my head – to stop the mast from crashing down on my head should it still be falling. I also raise my hand out of the water and over my head to signal to anyone that might have seen me fall that I am ok.
- I think it’s important to know your limits – especially in regards to the wind range. Lighter winds are easier to manage, yet strong winds can be harsh and unpredictable and physically exhausted.