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'Reminded me to be patient': Kitefoil champ on injury setbacks, support

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It has been three frustrating months for Lukas Walton-Keim, sidelined through injury and watching his road to the Olympic Games become steeper with each passing day.   

Fortunately, he hasn’t had to look far for advice and inspiration.   

Walton-Keim, New Zealand’s leading male kitefoiler and with Justina Kitchen the country’s best medal hopes in the class in Paris next year, is in a race to get back on his board after surgery to his right knee late last year.   

The 26-year-old has been managing a torn meniscus for the last two years but had avoided the scalpel, fearing time off the water would see him lose ground on leading competitors.   

He finally went under the knife in November, following several regattas in Europe.   

While the surgery was a success, Walton-Keim’s recovery suffered a series of setbacks.  

“For the first few weeks after surgery, I seemed to be ahead of schedule in terms of pain and swelling. I got back on the board after about seven or eight weeks, doing 30-minute sessions, and I think I rushed it a bit as I was feeling really good,” Walton-Keim explained.   

After back-to-back days of two-hour sessions on the water, the pain returned.   

“On day three it was pretty sore and from there it quickly got worse - there was a lot of pain and swelling and by January we decided to shut everything down.   

“A few weeks ago, I had a lot of fluid drained from the knee and since I have done very little. The focus now is on taking as much load of the knee as I can until it settles down, something I didn’t do well enough the first time.” 

Lukas Walton-Keim is in a race against time to get back on his board.

Lukas Walton-Keim is in a race against time to get back on his board.

It’s been a frustrating period, Walton-Keim admits.   

“This is a big year for me, and I need to be kiting more, not less, against the top guys in the world if I’m going to get better. I’m not doing that now but I’m confident I can get where I need to be.

“The time off the water has given me the opportunity to focus on other parts of my campaign and reminded me to be patient.”     

Walton-Keim is fortunate to have a “wonderful group of people” supporting him – including the team at High Performance Sport New Zealand and Yachting New Zealand. 

No one has been more encouraging, though, than his partner and Olympic pole-vaulter Eliza McCartney, who has battled a string of Achilles tendon and hamstring injuries since claiming the bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Games.   

McCartney returned to competition last month after two years on the sideline, claiming the title at the Potts Classic in Hastings off a shortened run-up. 

“Eliza’s been dealing with injuries for quite a while and has finally been able to get back vaulting, which is an exciting time,” Walton-Keim said. 

“It’s nice to have support from someone who knows how it feels [to be unable to compete at the highest level due to injury]. She has shown so much determination to finally do what she does best again that I can’t complain about my situation too much.”   

Lukas Walton-Keim is grateful for a 'wonderful' support network - including partner Eliza McCartney.

Lukas Walton-Keim is grateful for a 'wonderful' support network - including partner Eliza McCartney. 

Walton-Keim missed the kitefoiling national championships at Taipa Sailing Club earlier this month, after dominating the domestic circuit for the past three years.   

This year’s title was won by Lochy Naismith, with Hugo Wigglesworth in second and Kitchen third (and the top female).   

“I enjoyed seeing them battle it out for that top spot and the level of competition is definitely improving. That’s good news for me, as these are the people I’ll be training with in New Zealand when I get back to fitness.”   

Walton-Keim will also miss this weekend’s Oceanbridge NZL Sailing Regatta but is hopeful to return to the European circuit as soon as April.   

In October, he finished 28th at the World Championships in Cagliari after top 20 results at the European Championships and an Olympic test event.   

Lukas Walton-Keim had a strong finish to 2022 - before having surgery to his right knee.

Lukas Walton-Keim had a strong finish to 2022 - before having surgery to his right knee. 

“Overall, I think I was making really good gains, especially near the end of my trip. I definitely improved throughout the year and I’m hoping to build on that this year,” Walton-Keim said.   

“The reason I had the surgery was, for the last two years, I couldn’t help but wonder how much better I could be without any injuries – how much more I could train and work on my skills and my fitness.   

“Looking back now, no niggle is as bad as having three months out of action, but I’m confident I can come back stronger than before”.