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'A lifetime of wanting to do this one thing': Kiwi kitefoilers to make history at Olympics

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Late last year, Justina Kitchen's Olympic dream 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.
Kitchen and Lukas Walton-Keim were named to the New Zealand Team today 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.
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."


Justina Kitchen will represent New Zealand in the women's kitefoil in Marseille. Photo / Adam Mustill Photography

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 the new class in Rio de Janeiro would replace windsurfing.
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!"
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."


Lukas Walton-Keim will make his Olympic debut in August. Photo / International Kiteboarding Association

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!"
NZOC CEO Nicki Nicol extended her congratulations to the athletes.
“We're thrilled to have Lukas and Justina as our first-ever Olympic kitefoiling athletes," says Nicol. 

"We wish them all the best with the rest of their preparation and we look forward to seeing them wear the fern and compete for New Zealand in just under two months.”
Sailing at Paris 2024 is due to get underway in Marseille on July 28th and conclude on August 8th.