Canoeing came so close to the perfect 10 as they closed out their three-day competition at the African Games with another four gold medals in Rabat on Friday, writes GARY LEMKE.
That took their tally to nine golds and a silver medal, a spectacular haul considering they arrived with eight paddlers in the squad.
Those four golds on a brutally hot Friday morning, softened by a side wind that picked up towards noon came, in the men’s and women’s K1 and K2 competitions, with Chrisjan Coetzee picking up two golds (K1 and K2), and one going to each of Bridgitte Hartley and Donna Hutton (K2), Esti van Tonder (K1) and Jarryd Gibson (K2).
It was as emphatic a statement that Team SA could have made at these Games and now the paddlers have an anxious wait to see whether they will earn the green light to the Tokyo Olympics, have put up qualifying times. The double-edged sword facing canoeing is that they are superior to the rest of Africa, but as we saw at the recent World Championships, they’re slightly off the standard required to win the medals.
But, the feeling amongst other countries competing at these African Games is unanimous: they want the best country to represent the continent at canoeing in Tokyo. ‘There’s five rings in the Olympic logo representing the five continents for a reason,’ was a familiar line this week.
However, those selection issues can wait for another day. Take this moment rather to celebrate the excellence that Team SA showed at these African Games. Coetzee, has come off the best season his career and is desperate to be given the chance to represent South Africa in Tokyo.
‘Obviously, it’s out of my hands, but I’ve done what I can,’ he said after winning the K1 200m. ‘When my (K1) final came round the cross wind had picked up. While it was about the win and the gold medal and for my country, I was surprised when I looked at the time (34.091sec), because I thought the conditions might have hampered my race against the clock. So, I’m doubly stoked. I also was hoping to show that I have what it takes to excel on the major international stage. I really want to go to the Olympics!
‘I’ve been with the British team for a couple of training camps, which has really helped. I’ve spent time with the fastest paddler out there (Liam Heath) and my confidence has been boosted as a result of the quality time spent with them. I honestly think that’s coming through in my performances.’
In May this year Coetzee had become the first South African to win an ICF (International Coach Federation) Canoe World Cup medal in over a decade when he won bronze in the men’s 500m K1 final at the season-opening World Cup in Poland.
Elsewhere on Friday, Van Tonder added a second K1 gold, the 200m, to the 500m she had picked up 24 hours earlier.
Immediately after winning her race she was called out of the water and summoned to the medals ceremony. Up the hill she ran, joking, ‘I didn’t realise I’d entered a triathlon,’ and at the top she was stopped by doping control. ‘That’s the second one in two days,’ she said, ‘but it’s a good thing to ensure our sport is clean.’
Van Tonder also clocked and Olympic qualifying time (42.180), but not before she had overcome a sluggish start and left herself having to click into top gear immediately. ‘There were some other paddlers making a noise on the water near the start and when I looked to see what it was all about I didn’t hear the gun and got a bit left behind. I had to get going quickly but I never felt in danger of losing the race. I felt that I had control quite a long way from the finish.’
The 26-year-old paid tribute to her brother, Fouche. ‘None of this would be possible without having him by my side. The number of training sessions we’ve done together on this journey is incredible; we have left everything out there on the water in those sessions. Now that I’ve won the (K1) 200 and 500 and in good times, I also hope that the canoeing gods will smile on our federation and give us our chance in Tokyo.’
At the other end of the spectrum is Bridgitte Hartley, who is also hoping to be in the mix for what would be her fourth Olympics. She added the K2 200m gold to that of the 500m she had won with partner Donna Hutton. ‘It’s really amazing to think I could be in the mix for a fourth Olympics,’ she said. ‘There was a chance that I was going to quit the competitive side of the sport after (winning a medal in London) 2012, but I’ve kept going and feel stronger than ever. ‘
Her K2 partner, the 21-year-old Hutton, said, ‘We took a while to get started, which was frustrating. We just wanted to go, but they kept calling us back. We had a bit of a rough start but then got going and we are very happy with the way we closed out the race to take the win. It had been a bit of a long morning, sitting in the tent, trying to stay out the sun, drink lots of water and using ice on our necks to keep us cool.’
Closing out the canoeing competition at these Games in style was the pair of Coetzee and Gibson in the K2 200m. Qualifying fastest and racing in lane five, the South Africans put down the hammer from the start and powered away to the line. ‘With the pressure being off because it wasn’t an Olympic qualifier it presented the perfect opportunity for Jarryd and myself to go out there, have a bit of fun and make sure that we finished off the season in good style,’ said Coetzee.