Bridgitte Hartley’s undimmed Olympic dream

The Olympic medalist has begun planning a life beyond canoeing but wants to tick off a few more achievements before she retires, even if some are beyond her control.

Bridgitte Hartley would like to bow out of canoeing in style at the Olympics, but there are a few challenges that could derail that dream. The 2020 Olympic Games, scheduled to be staged this year, are threatened again by the Covid-19 pandemic that forced their postponement last year. 

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese government have been adamant that the Games will go ahead, buoyed by the rollout of vaccines. But Hartley might not be part of the showpiece after the decision by the South African Sports Confederation and Olympic Committee (Sascoc) to maintain their high standards of qualification despite the canoeing team securing a place based on the IOC’s criteria. 

Sascoc’s argument is that it doesn’t want to send teams that would embarrass the country, hence the high standards. But as the first African to win a medal in the K-1 500m at the Olympics, the 37-year-old can hold her own. Hartley won a bronze medal in the canoeing sprint event at the London Olympics. “It’s probably one of the best feelings I’ve had as an athlete in my entire life,” says Hartley, who lives in Pietermaritzburg. 

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“For me, standing on that podium was a dream come true. I think there’s a picture where I have a tear coming down my cheek and it was not a tear of sadness but tears of joy. It’s like you can’t believe what you achieved. And even still now I get reminded by people how excited they were by watching me as I did so well. But because I haven’t officially retired, it hasn’t sunk in, even so many years down the line. So yeah, it is still pretty cool. But because I’m still trying to compete, I haven’t had time to reflect so much on what I did.”

Learning from previous experiences

For Hartley, the Olympic medal was a result of good preparation. She travelled around the world to join training camps full of talented paddlers and her experience at the Beijing Olympics, where Erin Michelle was her racing partner in the K-2 500m event, taught her some tough lessons.

“I think racing on the team boat is always challenging as you must spend time in the boat together,” says Hartley. “And when I went into Beijing, I was much of a novice, paddling at that level of competition was a challenge. I think it was more about being there and I was never into results. But I was grateful we reached the semifinals. If you want to race in a team, you need a full year of preparation together.

“But going to London, I did spend a lot of time on a training camp with international paddlers, and I had a coach, an international Hungarian coach [Nandor Almasi] by my side for a number of years. So that’s why I was very aware that if I was to take on another Olympics Games now, I stand a chance to win. Being around an international coach and international athletes made me get to that level. And it’s not only about the hours of training, but it’s also about pushing yourself. 

“I did spend many, many weeks and months in Hungary. Travelling by myself on training camps with different groups. I went to plenty of training camps in Florida with a group of international paddlers from Europe, and some were Canadian, Norwegian, Swedish or from Ireland. I knew I was strong and I was aiming for a good result. And all my best races came from London. I think my coach kind of knew that I had the potential and believed in me. But for me, I wasn’t sure.”

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Born in Johannesburg in 1983, the three-time bronze medalist at the ICF Canoe Sprint championship was introduced to the sport by her father. During her days as a student at the University of Pretoria, she was convinced by a group of friends to join a training group in Benoni under Almasi. Their relationship lasted for 12 years, till Hartley decided to coach herself in 2014.

“Nandor was the very first coach that I had when I started paddling seriously. So he ended up becoming like a bit of a father figure for me because he knew me inside and out. He would be able to judge my mood without even saying anything. That’s probably what made it turn into such a good relationship. There were days where I was just being tired and grumpy, or not having a good day. He could see through that. He believed in my potential.”

Making a living outside sport

With her career approaching its twilight, Hartley has already figured out life after professional sport. “Somebody has to pay the bills. You can’t just try to assume that you’re going to get sponsors and just think that you’re going to be an athlete all the time,” explains Hartley, who has a degree in human movement science.

“And with everything changing like it has [owing to Covid-19], I’ve had to start working. Otherwise, I’m going to end up being an athlete living on the streets. So you know, there are decisions that you have to make in life, but I haven’t stopped training. You just have to look at it in a different way. Nowadays, I’m up in the morning to train and then I’m working for the rest of the day. So that’s kind of where I’m at at the moment. 

“We give hip fitness training sessions and nutritional advice to people from different walks of life. Some of them are moms that want to lose a bit of weight and get healthy. Some are athletes who are trying to achieve something. For example, I’ve had a hockey player and South African motorsports player that I have coached for a little bit. People sign up for a month, or two or three. I’ve had some for, like, five months now. And I kind of guide them along the way with programmes and make sure that they are eating well. So it’s keeping me busy and the company’s grown, going from strength to strength, and we have about 30 coaches now.

“My last wish is to participate in Tokyo 2021, even if it might come with financial constraints as Sascoc made it clear that they won’t send a canoeing team. But If it doesn’t happen, then I’ll turn my focus to local events.” 

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