‘Canoeing bronze was SA’s hardest medal to earn’

2012-08-15 00:00

WHEN reigning world marathon canoeing champion Hank McGregor speaks, it’s worth listening, and he says South African sprint kayaker Bridgitte Hartley’s bronze medal in the 500 metre K1 final at the London Olympics was the hardest earned by Team South Africa.

Hartley won South Africa’s first Olympic canoeing medal and McGregor, her Team Best 4Kayak Centre team-mate, is strong in his conviction.

“That medal was probably the hardest earned in the South African camp.

“People don’t understand how tough it is for an SA paddler to qualify and have a boat for the Olympics, let alone go on and win a medal. She made massive sacrifices and deserves all the credit she gets here in South Africa,” said McGregor.

He added that canoe sprinting as a sport in South Africa was overshadowed by paddling marathons such as the Dusi and Fish River races.

“Think about it. We have no international regattas anywhere on the African continent. To prepare, get a feel for what it’s about and race against the best, there’s no alternative other than to head overseas. It sounds great, but there are massive personal and practical sacrifices made.”

Hartley is a classic case, spending the past four years since her Olympic debut in Bejing in 2008 training in the Hungarian capital, Budapest, and Austria. She was put through her paces by Hungarian coach Nandor Almasi, who was contracted to coach the Austrian team. In this environment, she had the opportunity to race regularly against the best men and women paddlers from Europe and beyond.

McGregor hinted at the effort needed just for Olympic qualification.

“It’s brutal,” he said. “This is not like many other sports where a competitor aims for a set qualifying time. Paddling is a once-off at the world champs and if it’s not your day and you are off your game, it’s over, finished. Come back and try another time.”

Viewing Hartley as the catalyst to create interest in sprint paddling, McGregor is keen to see the next generation of paddlers following in her footsteps.

“The question is, why can we not have a World Cup in South Africa? We have hosted many international events and something like this would open doors to hundreds of talented paddlers, uncovering new talent, while also attracting top internationals to race and train here,” he said.

McGregor was full of admiration for Hartley’s achievement.

“I have tried my hand at international sprints, but with little success. I watched her final and was blown away at how strong she was at the end. Despite an average start, she gained momentum and would have won gold if the race had been 50 metres longer.

“She has set the bar for the rest of us, showing what can be achieved if you really want something.

“Now is the time to capitalise on this, get the interest in sprinting renewed and push for that World Cup in Africa. Us marathoners have that privilege, what about the sprinters?” he asked.

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