SA canoeing legend Hartley hangs up her sprint paddle
Canoeing South Africa has lavished thanks and praise on London Olympic Games
medallist Bridgitte Hartley after she announced her retirement from sprint
canoeing this week.
Hartley made headlines in 2012 when she won South Africa’s first – and still
only – medal in sprint canoeing, and also became the first African athlete
to podium in that Olympic discipline.
“What more can we say about our sprint queen Bridgitte Hartley?” said
Canoeing South Africa president Kim Pople. “She has done it all. Olympic
medal. World Champs medals. World Cup medals. She has got them all!”
“She has done so much for Canoeing South Africa during the many, many years
she has been on the canoeing map. We are truly grateful for every time she
pulled on the green and gold on the sprint course.”
“We wish her well in the next chapter,” added Pople.
For Hartley, bringing down the curtain on her illustrious sprint canoeing
career was a difficult and emotional choice, but the decision has been eased
by the many new opportunities that her career path has opened up for her.
She has thrived in her new role as a coach and is taking a group of eager
Maritzburg College paddlers to new heights, while at the same time immersing
herself in her new role as the chair of the International Canoe Federation’s
She has also made it clear that she has new paddling and sporting goals and
her admirers will see her in action with Pippa McGregor at the Prescient
Freedom Paddle surfski race in Cape Town next month, a week after she runs
the Two Oceans half marathon.
After starting to paddle in her matric year in Pretoria in 2001, her stellar
career has earned her two 1000m and one 500m bronze medals at sprint world
championships; eleven medals at sprint World Cups, four of them gold; and
the famous Olympic 500m K1 bronze medal. She also has three international
marathon medals, including a short course gold medal.
“My dad was a keen paddler, so from wobbling around in the dam, I went on to
help act as a sweep on the Lowveld Croc marathon because we used to stay on
the Hay’s farm there quite a bit,” recalls Hartley.
It was during her days as a Tukkies student that she became interested in
flatwater sprints and established the partnership with Hungarian coach
Nandor Almasi, who was coaching in Gauteng at that time.
While Almasi moved away some years later, he was pivotal to Hartley’s
seminal race when she charged through the field to claim the 500m K1 women’s
bronze medal at the Eton Dorney regatta course at the London Olympics.
Since the popular Hilton resident accepted her new role heading up the ICF
Athlete’s Commission, she has engaged with athletes around globe and
realized that many elite competitors struggle to transition out of their
“It has been an eye-opener to attend meetings and conferences and hear from
athletes that I respect and admire, about shifting focus after your
competitive career,” said Hartley.
Zimbabwean swimmer Kirsty Coventry, who has taken on the task as minister of
sport in her home country, helped mould Hartley’s thinking.
“It helps to have a stepping stone out of your sport,” said Hartley. “When
you let go you seem to lose part of your identity, and it helps to have a
“Coaching the Maritzburg College guys gives me so much joy, and the work I
am doing on the ICF Athletes Commission is challenging and rewarding.
Throughout most of my sporting career, everything I have done has been
measurable. Now the things that I am focusing on have no measurables!”
Hartley can justifiably reflect with great pride on rejuvenating the Olympic
discipline of sprint canoeing in a country preoccupied with river marathons,
like the Dusi.
“It feels good to know I have made an impact in my own way,” said Hartley.
“I am excited to see the drive in my College guys aiming to qualify for the
Olympic Hopes regatta, as they aim to build sprint careers.”
Since providing the nation with the thrill of watching her race to that
historic Olympic medal just over ten years ago, scores of young athletes
have flocked to sprint training camps, and the number of participants at the
annual SA Schools Regatta and national sprint champs have sky rocketed.
More than a decade later, paddlers frequently ask: “Where were you when
Bridgitte Hartley won that Olympic medal?”