Since the Dutch athlete’s defeat at Rio 2016, she’s come back stronger than ever with three world titles to her name and is now aiming for a shot at glory at the Olympic Games
If there is anything that Dutch windsurfer Lilian de Geus knows how to do, it’s to bounce back with a vengeance.
After losing by one point and seeing a medal slip away from her hands at her Olympic debut at Rio 2016 in RS:X windsurfing, de Geus has more than made up for it. She has earned three world championship titles in the RS:X class in the last four years (2018, 2019 and 2021) - and if it weren't for the COVID-19 pandemic and sailing events being halted in most of 2020, de Geus would have had four world medals right now.
With de Geus now leading the charge for women's windsurfing, the three-time World Champion admits that it was actually her heartbreaking loss in Rio that continues to inspire her to be at the top of her game.
"I was really disappointed about Rio. And now if I look back on it, I think it [gave] me also a lot because of course, I missed [getting the] medal with just one point - and when I'm now racing, I am thinking about that one point," she told Tokyo 2020 in an exclusive interview.
"I don't want to lose again on one point because I experienced it before. So I think that was the biggest motivating [thing] from Rio that yeah, you have to work really hard to stay on top and then to go [and] win. Also this medal in Tokyo [motivates me]," the 29-year-old said.
A year of waiting for Tokyo
Tokyo 2020 is of course Geus' ultimate dream. And after that disappointing loss in Rio, the quest to come back to the Olympic stage and claim her place in the Olympic history books is something that's been brewing on her mind for a long time.
Right after qualifying for the Games in 2018 when she won the world title in Aarhus, Denmark, de Geus was already mentally and physically preparing for her return to the Olympics. But what was supposed to be a two-year wait became three with COVID-19 pulling the plug from most of the sporting events including windsurfing.
"And at that moment I thought already 'let the Olympics begin' and then you had to wait for three years. It was not easy to keep motivated because we didn't have goals anymore," de Geus said.
As challenging as it was not to race in her sport last year, de Geus' resilient character took over.
She took her focus away from RS:X for a moment and dabbled in foiling, the new Olympic class for windsurfing.
"I think it helped me a lot to stay motivated because there were some competitions, some nice races on foiling. So that was really, really nice."
However, in 2021 with some sports events restrictions easing out in Europe, de Geus was able to come back to competing at RS:X and in April, she showed that her top form hadn't waned even a tiny bit when she won at the World Championships.
And now with three World Championship titles, she's got more confidence to tackle the biggest sporting event, and her second outing at the Olympic Games.
"It has given me motivation [and] confidence [for Tokyo 2020]. We were talking [about] some goals also in training and it's super nice if your goals are going really well also in competition. So that gives a lot of motivation. Also [knowing] that you're still on top of the level and on top of the girls."
"But [of course] it's hard. You still have to look for new goals to get better [knowing that] all the girls are growing to your level of course," she added.
Elevating the sport in the Netherlands
While de Geus wants to be the best at her sport, she's also on a double mission to elevate windsurfing for female athletes in the Netherlands.
The nation is much more known for men's sailing brought on with the success of Dorian van Rijsselberghe, who has now retired from the sport, and Kiran Badloe, who is one of the strongest contenders in RS:X class.
But de Geus', who is the first female Dutch windsurfer to reach this level of success, is making her mark on windsurfing for women in the Netherlands.
"I'm really motivated to [bring] windsurfing in the Netherlands [to] a high level with the girls."
And she knows the road to that dream would be easier once she has her hands on an Olympic medal.
"I hope with this medal that I may be going to get in Tokyo [will] get more girls [to do] wind surfing, because that is I think the most important thing to do, she said before adding: "I love the sport and I hope many girls are going to love this sport."
She knows it only takes a spark to fall in love with the windsurfing, basing it from her own experience.
"I was I think, 15, 16 years old, I was also playing football on a high level and and many times in the week and only windsurfing on holidays. And then I started doing some races on windsurfing and I really enjoyed it. And I was getting better and better," she recalled.
"And then I got actually asked for the Olympic team in Holland to go for London 2012. But the Olympics was a bit early and I was really young. They saw some talent in me and from that moment. I really enjoyed the sport and I really wanted to get in the Olympics and windsurfing and be the best windsurfer there is.
"I was really motivated to train hard and to reach my goals from that moment in the sport of windsurfing."
No Plan B for Tokyo
Coming from a family who loves windsurfing, for de Geus, the love for the sport has always been at the core of her being.
"I really love the sport, like being out in nature. I love the speed on the windsurfing. I really love the game, the tactical game of it, and I love it."
"And being outside - the free feeling, the freedom [on being on] the windsurf. I think that's the biggest thing I really love about the sport but also how fast you can go in the water [with the wind]."
And de Geus said it's her family's support - particularly from her twin sister, a slalom windsurfer, which has helped her throughout her journey to become the athlete she is today.
"I come from a very supportive family and I think that's really important that your family's behind you and support you in reaching your goals."
And with her family who's got her back every step of the way, she's raring to to take on Tokyo where she's got no other plans except to win.
"If that happens, 'it will be a dream come true," said de Geus whilst smiling. "I will be really, really happy and of course we're going to do everything [and] my best to complete that."
After a year of waiting for the Games, de Geus has finally been able to touch down in Japan and is now in a training before she competes in her first event at Enoshima Yacht Club.
"I'm really excited for Tokyo and I can't wait to race there, and I'm super motivated as I waited already for a few years," she said.
Focussed on erasing her Rio disappointment, de Geus knows one thing: at Tokyo 2020, she won't let that medal slip away from her fingers again.
Watch Lilian de Geus in action during the Women's Windsurfer RS:X race starting on 25 July at Enoshima Yacht Club