Paddler recalls Olympic triumph

2014-10-28 00:00

WITH the world famous Dusi marathon hosted in South Africa, the world of canoeing is eagerly supported in our country, but some of its disciplines get less attention than they deserve.

Sprints are one of these disciplines that have little support nationally. Despite that fact, Richards Bay canoeist Bridgitte Hartley has flown South Africa’s flag proudly at two Olympics, and has a bronze medal to her name from the 2012 London spectacle.

Originally hailing from Pretoria, Hartley moved to Richards Bay when she was 10, although she ended up finishing her schooling career at Pretoria High School for Girls.

Hartley was keen on sports at school and enjoyed athletics, hockey and surfed while she was at school in Richards Bay.

“I was always trying to be good at something. I went to nationals for gymnastics and went to SA Champs for surfing — I think those were my highest achievements,” Hartley told The Witness.

It was only in her final years of school that her father introduced her to canoeing on weekends.

“We used to go out and paddle, my Dad and brother would often paddle off ahead without me,” Hartley said with a smile.

She only really started putting more time into canoeing in her second year at the University of Pretoria, leaving hockey behind. According to Hartley, the decision was based purely on enjoyment at first.

“I enjoyed it and I had a desire for river racing. I used to paddle alone at a dam at varsity before meeting up with some guys who had been training with a Hungarian coach in Benoni.”

After a couple of years of river paddling, which included taking on the Dusi and Fish River marathons, Hartley started training in sprints. Specialising in the 500 m and 1 000 m, Hartley first competed in nationals back in 2006.

From then on, she regularly competed in World Cups and World Champs every year and qualified for the Beijing Olympics and competed in the K2 semi-finals before being knocked out.

“That was a great experience, I got to do everything from the opening and closing ceremonies to enjoying the Olympic village. There wasn’t too much pressure on me, although we were still training while we were there,” she recalled.

After that performance, Hartley knew she wanted to go back to the Olympics and had a chance four years later in London. The years in between were filled with training in Europe while competing in the three annual World Cups and the single annual World Champs.

“London was different in that I only flew in four days before my race. I skipped the opening ceremony; it’s great for first timers but it’s really long. I ended up watching it on TV.”

Hartley had a strong heat and semi-final, although they were hardly an hour apart. The upside of that was she booked her place in the final early.

“I was pretty nervous the night before, but I didn’t want to pressure myself. I knew if I had a good race, I had a shot at a medal.”

The rest is history as Hartley went on to win the bronze medal, although she admits she wasn’t sure what the result was when she finished.

“I crossed the line and sensed I had been ahead, but the Hungarian next to me had been ahead. I had to wait until they showed the result on the screen. I didn’t know what to do with myself and it was a roller-coaster ride, with interviews and prize giving afterwards. I only saw my mom like two hours after the race.”

So where does Hartley stand two years away from the 2014 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro?

“I’d like to get another medal. If you don’t dream about it, you will never achieve what you want. But I am focusing on qualifying first and I need to make sure I get a spot in the SA team,” Hartley said.

She travels to Italy today for a month-long training camp with her new coach Guglielmo Guerrini ahead of the 2015 paddling season.

HARTLEY’S NOTABLE ACHIEVEMENTS

• Bronze medal in the K1 1 000 m race at the 2009 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships.

• Bronze medal in the K1 1 000 m race at the 2012 London Olympics.

• Bronze medal in the K1 500 m race at the 2014 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships.

HARTLEY’S HOBBIES

“I really enjoy surfing and back in 2010, I used to stay in Richards Bay and went out often after training sessions. Sometimes I could hardly paddle out, but after training alone, it was nice to go out and surf with all the other guys out there.”

WHY SHOULD PEOPLE TAKE UP CANOEING?

“I would encourage people to give it a go. If you are really good, there is a chance to travel overseas and represent your country. On the other side, its a great social sport, its really fun and keeps you fit.”

TRAINING AHEAD OF RIO 2016

“You really start setting up a base phase two years before, but it really is a long time to stay focused. I want to finish in the top eight at next year’s World Champs, which is the qualifying race for the Olympics.”

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