The interview with the South Africa's golden girl of kayaking – special for CanoeSport!
Where and whom are you training with now?
I am training in South Africa at the moment for a couple months. I was fortunate to have some Hungarians to train with for 3 weeks in South Africa. It’s always good training with a group of C1 men and K1 ladies from Csepel Canoe club.
How did you get into sprint? Did you try yourself in the other sports?
I started paddling in University where some guys suggested that I join a group with a Hungarian coach Nandor Almasi. He taught me everything I need to know about paddling especially technique so I was in good hands for many years.
I love that kayaking has taken me to see so many places in the world already and allowed me to meet so many amazing people too. I did a lot of other sports at school like hockey, athletics, gymnastics, and I started surfing before I started paddling. I have enjoyed the kayaking so much as I have achieved so much in my career so far.
How much training do you have to do? How do you set daily training goals to yourself?
We paddle twice a day most of the time and do 3 gym sessions and 3 running sessions supplemented with the paddling sessions. I have weekly goals as well as competition goals to aim towards which keep me going forward.
How did you keep busy while you had more free time? What are your hobbies?
Some days I don’t feel like there is that much free time when training has been so physically demanding. I love baking and cooking as well as surfing if I did have a free moment. I am currently working on a little book.
2016 and plans for 2017
What are your impressions about 2016? Are you satisfied with your results?
I think 2016 was a very stressful year with it being an Olympic year. I am sure it was like this for everyone training at this level. I would love to have achieved a better result however this was not the case.
What are your goals and plans for this year? How many events are you going to compete in?
This year I am focusing on the Marathon world championships as its being held in South Africa, this is going to be an amazing event to have on home ground because our team has done so incredibly well over the last couple of years in the marathon events. I am going to compete in some local Surfski races as well. I would love to be doing some sprinting but financially travelling this year is more challenging.
What do you think about the new world champ programme?
I know some events are really well liked which have been taken out and other events are very small so they were never so popular. I think there were perhaps too many changes all at once to the programme for world champs.
You won medals in K-1 500 m and K-1 1000 m, tried yourself in K-1 200 m. Besides you take part in River Canoe Marathon and sometimes race at 5000 m. What is the difference between these distances and kinds of sport for you? How do you feel about them?
When I first started to race for South Africa, I competed in the 1000m so that was my favourite event. Then I started to race the 500m and this event is still my absolute favorite, I really love this distance. I tried the 200m as an extra event to help with my starts and really enjoyed these events at Olympics level.
The 5000m is a really great high intensity event with no space for a mistake so its also great fun.
The River races were just a new challenge for me, but not my favourite. The sprint events are more focused with goals to get a good technique and perfect stroke. The longer events have time for error and if someone makes a mistake ahead and you don’t then you could win or if you have a flawless race then it’s your chance to win so there are many more variables involved.
You took part in the Olympic Games several times. Can you compare your feelings and experience?
I have competed in 3 Olympics now 2008 in a K2 we made the Semi-finals, 2012 I won a bronze medal, which was the most amazing achievement in my career. The 2016 Olympics were more stressful but also so incredibly amazing to be representing my country at this level.
Over the years the training has taught me that discipline and focus, hard work produce rewards. At this level of competition also bring ecstasy and elation along with heart ache and pain. It’s just about understanding the results and moving forwards afterwards.
You are the first paddler from South Africa to get world champ medals and an Olympic medal. How has your life changed? Do you get enough support from the public, local authorities and sponsors? Do your fans follow you?
The support was really incredible after winning an Olympic medal, the world champs medal went a little unnoticed. The media and support from locals and sponsors and authorities was great after getting an Olympic medal but now it’s very tough to do sport full time at the moment. I still have the support from local fans who follow my progress.
Sport in South Africa
Let’s talk about South African canoeing in general. Is canoe sprint popular in SA? Do you see growing interest?
I think Sprint Canoe is very small in South Africa, the marathon culture is definitely more popular as it’s more of a reachable goal for the local paddlers to make the team and achieve a medal especially coming from a River background for most paddlers.
I however started off more as a sprinter in 2005 so I didn’t come from the river marathon culture for very long. We have a few groups training for sprints however its very small.
Tell something about the training in SA? Do you have national team training camps?
We don’t have any team training camps at all, over the last few years I have just joined other international groups.
I’ve heard that the sportsmen there do as much as they can with limited budget and sponsorships. Is it true?
Yes, very few of our athletes can afford to paddle full time so almost everyone has to have a job. I have been fortunate to paddle professionally for almost 10 years now representing South Africa also on a limited budget but getting some Support to train and race at an Olympic Level which has been really amazing.
Motivation and fear
How do you feel on the start of a big race? How do you get ready for the race? How do you overcome anxiety and fear?
I am always nervous before a big race, however I like to work out a plan for my warm up routine which helps calm the nerves and focus on the process and task at hand rather than looking at what the other athletes are doing. Confidence in the training done is a major help to overcome anxiety and fear as it helps boost confidence that the work is done and its time to race.
What is the best motivation for the young sportsmen? What/who motivates you?
Help each other to achieve your goals, it’s the best to have a training squad that motivates you, you will go far together if you can get this right. We all need a boost somedays or a congratulations when we make small gains in training not only when we win a medal at big competition.
Wish something to the young kayakers!
Live your dreams and face your fears!
Bridgitte Hartley special for CanoeSport.