Bridgitte Hartley became the first South African to win a sprint canoe medal at the London Olympic Games in 2012. It was, she admitted, a life-changing experience.
“After winning an Olympic medal, you are a bit speechless, but you have the biggest smile on your face until the next major race,” she told the Road to Rio recently.
“It, most definitely, was and is still the biggest highlight of my paddling and athletic career. You go into an Olympics and you haven’t been winning World Championships. You’re not expecting anything, but you know that you’ve trained hard and you’re hoping if you have a good race you could medal.
“I happened to have one of the best races of my life on 8 August 2012 and I got the medal. It is the best feeling that I have had ever. It changed things in my life quite drastically.
“Everybody wanted to talk to me after I came home. There was an amazing, warm welcome at the airport, with all the South Africans wanting to greet the medallists. It was the kind of experience I had never had. That was a major highlight.”
On returning to Pietermaritzburg, Hartley said it was gratifying to see the impact of her bronze medal success in the numbers and level of female paddlers. “The bar had definitely been raised,” she shared.
While numbers in the senior women’s category remain small, Hartley said she is pleased by the talent she sees in the junior ranks. “I definitely see a lot of growth among the youngsters, which is very exciting. That means there is definitely going to be another Bridgitte coming through the ranks.”
The four years since London 2012 have been filled with up and downs, Hartley added, with 2013 being the lowlight. Chicken pox laid her low in May, which meant she wasn’t able to compete on the World Cup circuit.
With only three months’ training behind her, the Natal Canoe Club (NCC) star placed eighth in the A-final at the World Championships. “It was probably the best that I could do. I was grateful for that, but at the same time it was extremely challenging after the high of winning an Olympic medal.”
The following year, 2014, provided another big highlight when Hartley captured a bronze medal at the World Championships in Moscow.
“I think it is the first Olympic distance World Championships medal that a South African or African paddler has ever received,” Hartley said. “It put me back on track and gave me more confidence. It showed that some of the training I had done was paying off.”
Being back in an OIympic year is tough, she reckoned. “It’s always tough in an Olympic year, especially after competing in the World Cups again and seeing the level of the paddlers and how many are in really good shape.
“However, I know a lot of them had selection trials a week before the World Cups, which meant if they didn’t perform they didn’t get a ticket to Rio, whereas – not that I am complacent – I didn’t have to peak for the World Cups.
“It gave me a bit of a shock. I think because the other girls have had to be that fast right now. I’m hoping their percentage increase in speed between now and Rio is quite small. I have a lot of things to improve on, and I am sure I can improve by those small increments, which make me that much closer to them.”
Since London 2012, Hartley has enjoyed an excellent support structure in Pietermaritzburg. “Camps Drift is a really good piece of water because it is straight and you can get a lot of good sessions in, in really good conditions most of the time,” she said.
“There’s also the bonus of having the NCC gym there and someone to help us, set up through the [KwaZulu-Natal Department of Sport and Recreation’s] Prime Institute and Elite Athlete Development Programmes. There are regular physio sessions, sports psychologists and dieticians. It has been really great. The funding has been more than I have ever had before. ”
Hartley is training under leading South African sprint coach Craig Mustard, who is based at NCC, and has also been receiving input from Brazilian coach Thiago Borges, who has provided her with programmes and technical assistance.
Starts have been one of her weak points in the past, but she has been working on them. “By the time we come to Rio I will possibly get it right, but I also know that I will never win the race out of the starting blocks or at the 250 metre mark,” she said.
“It’s all about trying to be closer to the other girls after the first 250 metres and then finishing the race strongly. It’s just the way I have always raced. It’s the best race plan going forward.”
FIVE BRIDGITTE HARTLEY FACTS
Bridgitte holds the world record for the fastest 500m K1 ever, having clocked 1:46.906 in World Cup competition at Szeged, Hungary, in 2011. Incredibly, it was achieved in a B-final!
Bridgitte also owns national colours in canoe marathon racing. She was crowned South African champion in 2015 and finished 12th at the World Championships in Győr, Hungary. She has previously finished in the top five at the World Championships.
As a schoolgirl, she competed at a national level in gymnastics on the uneven bars.
Bridgitte preferred surfing to canoeing while in school and placed as high as fourth in the under-16 division of the Roxy Pro.
She has swum the Midmar Mile six times.