Justina Kitchen is back in a world she didn’t think she would occupy again.
It’s a world of speed, excitement and high stakes and, if things go to plan, recognition and rewards.
The 29-year-old is aiming to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics after kiteboarding was late last year included on the Games programme. It will be Kitchen’s third attempt to go to the Olympics and it’s fair to say the previous two didn’t end that well, often because of circumstances beyond her control.
She missed out on selection in the RS:X class for the 2012 London Olympics but was mapping out her next four years with three-time Olympic medallist Barbara Kendall when it was announced windsurfing was being scrapped from the Olympic programme in favour of kiteboarding.
Kitchen decided to cut her losses and learned how to kiteboard, finishing in the world’s top 10 within four months of making the switch. A couple of months later, kiteboarding was dumped from the Olympic programme and windsurfing reinstated.
“I was frustrated and exhausted,” Kitchen remembers. “At that point, I decided I was going to focus on my career and do something else with my life. I still wanted to keep kiting because I had really fallen in love with it. I didn’t really want to give that up and go back to the RS:X because it felt like a big step back.
“It’s pretty hard to pursue an Olympic campaign if your heart isn’t really in it and you would rather be doing something else. And that was kitesurfing. I decided I would do the career for a while and kitesurf on the side.”
Add a couple of kids into the mix and kiteboarding fell down the list of priorities. Four years later, it’s now near the top again.
She learned to kitefoil on a family holiday to Nelson and then dipped her toe into competition again, doing it “for enjoyment and something to get away from the kids in the weekends”.
And that’s when serendipity stepped in. Kiteboarding’s inclusion on the Olympic programme has allowed Kitchen to dream again.
“It’s funny how you get taken on these different journeys by life and you end up doing things you didn’t expect,” she says. “I didn’t expect to be kiting, or be a mum as young as I was or to be campaigning ever again but the situation has unfolded and I feel like it’s an amazing opportunity.
“It’s a new class and I have all the RS:X and kiting experience. It’s all kind of landed in my lap and I have to take it up.
“I talked to my dad a lot about it and all he said was, ‘you’ll never forgive yourself if you don’t give it a shot’, and ‘you are old for a bloody long time’.”
Dad just happens to be Rex Sellers, who won Olympic gold with Chris Timms in the Tornado class at Los Angeles in 1984 and followed it up four years later with silver.
Sellers now lends a hand with childcare, which allows Kitchen to train every day. She somehow makes it work, despite all of her other commitments like family and part time work.
Justina Kitchen trains with Lukas Walton-Keim. Photos: Josh McCormack.
Kitchen trains alongside New Zealand’s top two men’s kiteboarders, Lukas Walton-Keim and Sam Bullock, who was 18th at last year’s sailing world championships in Aarhus. The trio are a considerable distance ahead of their competition and would love to see more get involved in the sport.
All three light up when talking about what it’s like to foil and a short clip of Bullock travelling recently at 24 knots in only six knots of breeze prompted plenty of chatter in kiting and sailing circles.
“The first time you foil is the most surreal experience, because you lift off and everything is quiet and there’s no splashing,” Kitchen says. “Just the speed you are going makes it so much more exciting.”
Kitchen has mapped out the next 12 months, which includes training in San Francisco and racing in Mexico before May’s world championships at Lake Garda. She hasn’t yet raced internationally in her return to the sport.
“Which makes it seem crazy I’m talking about world championships and Olympic campaigns,” she says. “The numbers doing it at the moment are quite small and the upskill process to be a kiter is a long one. To be able get around a course and do all the manoeuvres takes about three years.
“I’m racing Sam and Lukas and have been assured by Sam that if I keep going as I am I would be top 10 at the worlds.
“The plan is to keep racing through to at least 2024. At the time I will be 35 and we assume foiling will be in for at least two Olympic cycles so, depending how that goes, it’s not out of the question to keep racing until I’m 39.
“There’s a woman, Steph Bridge, who has been world champion and is still currently in the top three and she’s in her 50s so there’s quite a lot of longevity when you’re foiling.”
Kitchen’s three-year-old already has a small trainer kite she takes to the beach and plays with while mum is out training. Chances are she’ll be foiling before her 10th birthday and will then aim to beat mum.
And that will be a whole new world for Kitchen again.
# Anyone interested in learning more about kiteboarding should visit nzkra.nz.