Thirteen years after first donning the South African kit, Bridgitte Hartley gets to walk out in it as flag-bearer for her country at the closing ceremony of the African Games on Saturday, writes GARY LEMKE.
‘For me it’s a great honour,’ Hartley, a veteran of three Olympic Games and hoping to extend that run to four in Tokyo next year, said after finishing a successful campaign in Morocco, where she teamed up with Donna Hutton and picked up gold in the K2 200 and 500m events as well as being part of the K4 500m team which also won gold.
‘After all these years it’s the first time that I’ve been selected as a flag-bearer for my country. It’s an honour and something that I will always treasure. This is my second African Games and although I’ve competed in many African Championships in canoeing itself, taking part in a multi-code event like this is special.
‘I always wear my national kit with pride and to see us lining up against other African nations is also a proud moment. As an athlete one can never take anything for granted and after I won bronze at the 2012 London Olympics, there was never any guarantee that I would carry on canoeing at the highest international level. But here I am, seven years later – and loving it.
‘There’s definitely a difference between competing internationally as an individual and doing so in the colours of South Africa. It’s great to wear the kit and not only see it represented on the podium, but also on the water. We are not racing in some random kit, as happens as an individual. I love it, I really do.’
After a successful campaign where Hartley has again put herself in the selection window for the Olympics, it’s now the slow buildup to Tokyo.
‘I’ve semi planned for another season,’ she said. ‘You never know how it’s going to go, but in the buildup there’s now going to be a break of around two to three months, then there are training camps with international paddlers which always helps to “up” the level, then it’s into selection for world champs, then racing at world champs and then the Olympics.’
Hartley admits that there’s probably another ‘one to two years’ left for her at this level. And she’s enjoying being part of a younger squad that delivered nine gold medals and a silver in Rabat.
‘While I’m the most senior member of this group I’m most definitely not on a pedestal. It’s awesome seeing these youngsters come through and getting to grips with the world’s best. The state of canoeing in South Africa is really strong and it’s growing in flat water, marathon and surf ski and it’s growing all the time, which is healthy. I’m really looking forward to seeing the sport go from strength to strength in the the coming years.’
But for now, the stage is Hartley’s – and she will be making the most of it when she walks out with the rainbow nation’s flag in hand at the Prince Moulay Abdellah Sports Complex on Saturday.