Elite Amateur Sport Sailing

Ottawa’s Rebecca Heller aims for Olympics in brand-new windsurfing class

By Mark Colley

At five years old, Rebecca Heller stood at her family’s home on the shores of the Ottawa River in Dunrobin. She stepped into her Optimist sailing dinghy, measuring just under eight feet long with a small white sail billowing in the wind, and waved goodbye.

By the time Heller’s parents realized she wasn’t turning back, she was already well on her way to Quebec on the other side of the river. That’s when Heller’s parents decided they needed another boat to keep tabs on their daughter.

Keeping tabs on Heller is now more difficult than ever. At age 20, the adventurous, speed-seeking biomedical mechanical engineering student at the University of Ottawa is in the midst of a globe-trotting journey to qualify for the Paris 2024 Olympics in the new windsurfing class of IQ foil.

Today, you’ll find her training in the vibrant blue waters off the coast of Hawaii. Next month, she’ll be lifting her IQ foil boat out of the water in Santiago, Chile, at the Pan Am Games, where she hopes to earn the one available qualification spot for the 2024 Olympics.

After that, Heller will be on her way to Spain for the 2024 windsurfing world championships in January, looking to qualify again. And if a coveted Olympic berth still evades her, she’ll have one last chance next spring before she turns her attention to 2028 in Los Angeles.

This frantic travel itinerary is new to Heller, who only started in IQ foil last fall. She’s been sailing her entire life, first riding along at the age of three with her older sister on the Ottawa River, then joining summer camp at the Nepean Sailing Club.

After convincing her parents to get her a boat of her own, she took it out every day on the river. Eventually, she sailed the two-person 49er FX, pursuing the end goal of competing at the Olympics.

Like so much else, that all came crashing down in March 2020. Sailing in close quarters with a crew of two became impossible. Then, her sailing partner decided to put a pause on the sport and continue with school.

Still wanting to pursue the Olympics but now looking for a single-handed sailing class, Heller caught wind that IQ foil was being added to the 2024 Olympics. She jumped in.

If windsurfing is a high-speed cousin of sailing, IQ foil is lightspeed. It’s one of the fastest varieties of the sport, sending participants flying above the water on a small board attached to an eight-metre sail.

Rebecca Heller. Photo provided

“It really just intensifies all the aspects of sailing,” said Heller, who was 87th in her Sailing World Championships debut last month in The Netherlands. “It’s just kind of freeing … This is all with your body movement and speed, so you feel very connected to nature.”

As a first-time Olympic sport, organizers are being stingy with qualification spots. Heller notes they’re allowing fewer than 25 athletes to qualify for the Olympics, while other classes — including 49er FX, which Heller used to sail — are close to double that. That means Heller will be competing with eight others for one North American spot at the Pan Am Games.

The relative novelty of the sport in Canada has also forced Heller to get creative. Her home training base is in Spain, where she recently spent five weeks training with her coach. She said there isn’t a coach in Canada that can train her to a high enough level for the Olympics.

But if 2024 evades her, she’ll turn her focus to 2028, travelling and training for four more years with the wind in her sails.

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