West Vancouver’s Nikola Girke has been to the Olympic Games four times already, in three different disciplines.
She’s been chasing those Olympic rings since 2004, when she made her debut in sailing in Greece. She racked up a top-10 finish in windsurfing in the London Games. When windsurfing was subsequently dropped from the Olympic program she switched back to sailing, and took on the polluted waters of the Rio 2016 course, a battle she and her sailing partner Luke Ramsey ultimately lost after Ramsey became ill.
And recently she learned she will be going back for a fifth time. You’d think she’d have seen it all in those two decades, but nothing in all those years has prepared Girke – or anyone for that matter – for what is coming this summer, the first Games held during a global pandemic crisis. The COVID Olympics.
“I struggle to define how I see these Games,” Girke told the North Shore News after becoming one of nine athletes nominated by Sail Canada to represent the country at the Tokyo Olympics. “To me, the Olympics are supposed to be like a worldwide celebration of sport and unity. And while the racing actually won't be different for the athletes competing, I really feel for Japan as the host country, the family, the friends and supporters that don't get to have that same in-person experience. The Olympics really are about the coming together, the unity, and of course, celebrating the sport.”
Girke said she’ll be going into these Games with real mixed emotions.
“On one hand, I don't feel that COVID is under control enough to warrant the coming together of so many nations, especially when so much of the world is still suffering in lockdown,” she said. “But on the other hand, the Olympics can bring a much-needed injection of hope and inspiration and something to watch, giving the athletes the chance to compete for something that they've worked so long and hard for.”
If Girke sounds like an Olympic-calibre deep thinker, that comes from her vast experience gained both in and out of the sports world since she first hit the waves in an Olympic event. Girke’s Olympic career began in a two-woman 470 boat for the 2004 Games before she switched over to her true passion, windsurfing, for the 2008 and 2012 Games. When windsurfing was nixed from the 2016 Games she switched back to sailing in the co-ed Nacra 17 Class, racing in a devilishly tricky two-person catamaran. And 2016 was supposed to be the end of it.
“After Rio I thought that was it for me,” said Girke. “And Rio ended abruptly. My teammate got sick, and so there goes the Olympics.”
It was a tough personal blow for Girke, who was then 38 years old and suddenly out of a job.
“I struggled to figure out how I would fit back into society,” she said. “The first two years were extremely difficult. But now I've managed to enter a new chapter in my life. I have a new state of mind, where being an Olympian no longer defines me.”
Her blissful retirement, however, ended when her true love, windsurfing, was added back into the Olympic program.
“The opportunity came along in 2019 with windsurfing again, and I was like, why not?” she said. “It seemed like it would be an opportunity to finish my Olympic career on my terms and in a healthy state of mind.”
Then, of course … COVID. The disruption hit all athletes hard. The Canadian Olympic trials were supposed to happen over two events. One trial was held in February 2020, and then the next trial was postponed and postponed again and then, finally, cancelled. Girke, as the top finisher in that first trial, was given the spot, but she hasn’t been able to take part in one competitive race since then, and she won’t get in another event until she hears the horn blast at the start of the race at the Tokyo Games. So how do you prepare for sport at its highest level when you can’t compete in that sport?
“I’ve been doing a lot of solo training,” she says, adding she kicked her dryland training regime into high gear with basement and backyard workout spaces in her West Vancouver home, as well as long runs through the neighbourhood and short sprints up the North Shore’s many ridiculously steep hills.
While her physical game remains strong, her mental game may be even stronger. Since Rio, Girke has taken on a career as a mental health coach. She’s spent the pandemic guiding others through the pitfalls of life in crisis times, and that has in turn helped her stay sharp and focused during those long solitary hours out on English Bay training for an Olympic Games she wasn’t sure would ever happen.
“I've been able to help coach people get through the pandemic in better ways, help them with their mental health issues,” she said. “And that brings me a lot of satisfaction, and is very impactful. And I think that's helped me a lot in my day-to-day as I deal with the pandemic. And, of course, with the physical training I do too, that is a huge, huge help for me, as an athlete, but also mentally. And so I've been faring quite well.”
And so Girke is set to accomplish something few in the world have ever done: compete in her fifth Olympic Games. Is that what she thought 2021 would look like when she took part in her first Olympics back in 2004?
“No! Absolutely never,” she said with a laugh. “The funny thing is … when I was younger and trying to qualify for my first Games, I always looked at the older ones and I'm like, ‘Come on, retire! Let the younger ones take over, there’s more to life than the Olympics!’ And it's funny how you do one and kind of become addicted a little bit. It's what you know, it's your job. It's like, ‘Oh, I think I can do better next time.’ And all of a sudden, the years kind of add up and creep up, and all of a sudden you're at No. 5, which is crazy to think about. You make a career out of something that was just your passion.”