Bridgitte Hartley, South Africa’s most successful sprint canoeist, is at a career crossroads after the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics to 2021.
Hartley, now 36, won two World Championship medals and a bronze at the London Olympics in 2012 and the 2020 Tokyo Games were going to be her career swansong – she had planned on being in close to perfect shape for the qualifying event in two months’ time in Germany.
However, she is now under lockdown at her father’s house in George with one eye set on remaining in shape and the other on whether the postponed Games are still viable for her next year.
‘Duisburg was hosting the final qualifying event in the third week of May,’ Hartley said. ‘It was going to be the final chance for me to qualify for the Olympic Games and I was really excited for the event. I had been at a training camp in Florida and then was hoping to get in a few more good weeks of training before the event which would be the last qualifying event for sprints in my career.’
Hartley highlighted the plight that many athletes who represent South Africa in non-mainstream sports face and with another year until the Olympic Games, she has some tough decisions to make.
‘The Cinderella sports in South Africa are not nearly as well funded, so to make the decision that I am going to put off a full-time job to try and qualify for the Games next year is a massive decision. Luckily I don’t have the make the decision just yet, but it’s going to be a massive financial sacrifice for me if I go that route. Now that the dates for the event next year have been confirmed I’ll be able to make a decision on what I am going to do.’
The 2019 ICF Canoe Sprint World Championships proved to be a tough event for Hartley as she was unable to use that as a direct qualification route and had to take part in the African Sprint Championships as the alternative.
‘Emotionally the qualification cycle is tough and after Worlds we had to go to the African Champs and we did well there and met the qualification criteria. The ICF then gave us the green light but our final qualification spot was up to Sascoc. We were then told that May’s event was going to be the final chance that we were going to get to qualify for the Games.
‘The quality of paddling in Africa has definitely improved and we have four K4 women’s boats which is fantastic to see, so it is much more competitive than it has been in the past,’ Hartley added.
Hartley’s career catch-22 has not stopped her from continuing her training regime although she has felt slightly deflated of late. ‘I have the enthusiasm to train as much as I can, but over the last few days I have lacked a bit of motivation. But, I think Mondays are good ways to realign and I am back at it again, albeit in a much more confined area!
‘I’ve got to keep that motivation up and I know that when the Games do come about I will be going either way because I am hoping to be elected on the IOC’s Athletes Commission. That’s another potentially exciting adventure that I will be embarking on.’
Hartley’s career has been unrivalled in South African sprint circles and apart from her three international medals, she pinpoints a few other moments that stand out.
‘I think my first Olympic Games in Beijing were hugely influential on my career,’ she explained. ‘I got a taste of what the Games were like and what it took to get there. When I was at Tuks I was in the right place at the right time and being introduced to Nandor Almasi was another huge moment in my career.’
It’s definitely not the end of the road for Hartley who still wants to give qualification for next year’s Games a good crack, after which she plans to target a number of other important paddling disciplines. ‘I would love to go to another Olympics because the fire still burns inside of me, so I will do as much as I can to try and qualify for the Games.
‘When I do retire from sprint paddling I don’t think I’m going to focus on one discipline, but I think that flat-water marathons is probably the best discipline for me. The river season is only a few months of the year and I need to get in the ocean more if I want to paddle my surfski but I will continue to paddle as much as possible!’
Photo: Bence Vekassy/canoephotography.com