Hook knife and a crash helmet: the New Zealand hopeful preparing for kite foiling’s Olympic debut

<span>Justina Kitchen, who will represent <a class="link " href="" data-i13n="sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link" data-ylk="slk:New Zealand;sec:content-canvas;subsec:anchor_text;elm:context_link;itc:0">New Zealand</a> in kite foiling at the Paris 2024 Olympic Games, describes the sport as ‘quite peaceful’.</span><span>Photograph: Sander van der Borch/World Sailing</span>

When New Zealand’s Justina Kitchen hits the water for the Paris Olympics next month in kite foiling, the 35-year-old will compete with an impact vest, a hook knife and a crash helmet.

The safety equipment is a requirement for kite foiling, a sport making its Olympic debut. It is considered the fastest sailing class, where competitors are harnessed to a large kite and routinely reach 48km/h (30mph) on a board that appears to hover over the water on a thin foil.

Yet “it is quite peaceful”, says Kitchen, who was on a break from training at Marseille Marina in the south of France, where the sailing competition will be.

“You are going so fast but you are flying above everything.”

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Kitchen’s road to the Olympics has been anything but fast. She missed selection for the windsurfing class in the 2012 London Olympics. At age 29 and after having two kids, Kitchen picked up kite foiling ahead of Rio in 2016 only for the sport to be bumped from the event by windsurfing. Kite foiling was again snubbed for Tokyo in 2021.

Kitchen grew up with an Olympic medallist father, Rex Seller, a legendary New Zealand yachtsman. So it seemed like destiny when kite foiling was announced as an Olympic sport for Paris, part of a wider strategy to attract a younger audience by including entertaining – albeit dangerous – sports like skateboarding and surfing. Gender equity is another strategy and sailing has achieved an even ratio of male to female competitors for Paris.

“Most people understand that it is something that has to be the right place and the right time,” says Kitchen. “[The Olympics] only happen every four years and you have to be lucky as well as good-fit and not injured, the right class, if you’re in a double-handed boat then the right partner.”

That luck disappeared in September last year when Kitchen took an epic spill ahead of the European championships, rupturing her anterior cruciate (ACL) and medial collateral ligaments, a career-ending knee injury for some athletes. Days after the accident, she was using electrical stimulation to slow muscle loss. Surgery was avoided in place of intense physiotherapy for a faster recovery. Kitchen was back kite foiling four months later.

“My mindset was wherever there was a small opportunity or glimmer of hope, I have slid through the cracks and made it work,” Kitchen says.

“Everything I have done up until now was unlikely and I had the same attitude with my injury.”

Kite-foil racing involves manoeuvring around a set course, with speed and tactics largely determining place-getters. Unlike other Olympic sports where the track or pool is the same for every competition, sailing has variables from wind speed to wave chop to a clump of seaweed catching the foil of one competitor and not another.

“You can never control it – you just have to deal with whatever nature gives you,” says Mark Orams, professor of marine recreation and tourism at Auckland University of Technology, who is also a foiling sailor.

Technology in sailing is rapidly changing, too. At Tokyo in 2021, sailing had one foiling class. In Paris, five of the 10 Olympic sailing classes are on foils. Equipment design and materials within each class are constantly improving to dial-up speed.

The physics of kite foiling means a heavier competitor can bear down more force on the board and foil, increasing speed. Gaining weight – either through muscle or fat or both – is part of preparations for competition. The ideal weight of a female kite-foil competitor is 70-80kg, according to Antonio Cozzolino, Kitchen’s coach, who is on a 12-month break from his job as a litigation lawyer to support her Olympic campaign.

The need for weight gain “is the biggest barrier to entry” for new kite-foiling competitors, says Cozzolino. The expense of equipment is also exorbitant, with the foil, board, harness and kite costing thousands of dollars.

“Spectators and sailors are in awe of the discipline, but I do think it is hard to say what direction it is going in,” Cozzolino says of what Olympic exposure means for kite foiling.

As for Kitchen, she is considered an outside chance for a medal. She is up against much younger competitors such as Australia’s Breiana Whitehead and Daniela Moroz from the US. Both are 23.

But Kitchen’s father won his gold and silver Olympic medals in his 30s, which isn’t unheard of in sailing.

“There is no real reason why I couldn’t compete for another ten years,” Kitchen says.