You don’t want to poke the bear when it comes to Esti van Tonder, especially not when the Olympics are less than a year away, writes GARY LEMKE.

South Africa’s national women’s canoeing champion in the K1 200 and 500m, Van Tonder added the 500m African Games title to her ever-growing CV and aims on Friday to pick up the 200m gold medal as well.

Thursday was one of those where TeamSA made their presence felt on the water at the venue in Rabat and they picked up four gold medals to add to the one on the opening day of the competition.

Friday promises more – and Van Tonder herself is awaiting her chance to stamp her class on the opposition.

‘The 200m K1 is always flat out and whoever keeps the speed up will be good in the race. I’ve worked a lot on my speed with Neil du Plessis at the Sports Science Lab in Pretoria and while the 500m is more my “food”, I’m just as determined to do well in the 200m.’

Van Tonder, who is another to arrive at these Games after competing at the World Championships in Hungary, didn’t need motivation to do well in Morocco, but received some when winning her morning heat.

‘Look, no one says that you need to put the burners on and go flat out, given that it’s the heats, but I do expect paddlers to at least put in effort and not cruise through the heats without trying too hard. I felt that the Tunisian (Khaoula Sassi) was taking it unreasonably easy in the heats. That got under my skin a bit for the final.’

In their heat Sassi had finished 31 seconds behind the South African and had obviously saved everything for the final just over an hour later. ‘All it did was make me extra motivated,’ Van Tonder said. ‘One of my main goals was to not only win the gold medal here, but also qualify for next year’s Olympics.

‘I don’t believe in taking things easy or underplaying a competition. To me, every event and every race you do is important, even if “just” a provincial. Every race gives you an opportunity to executing your race perfectly … and getting that perfect feeling so you can continue improving.

‘At the World Championships I had some unbelievable races and I wanted to try imitate that feeling here in Rabat. It wasn’t about thinking about winning that gold. More important was wanting to have a good race and the gold would come, and I think I achieved what I wanted to do,’ said the 26-year-old.

‘Conditions were a but different to yesterday … today there was quite a funny wind from the side. But, regardless of that, I felt comfortable and won in a good time, which surprised me considering the side chop in the water.’

The actual time in the final was 1:55.945 and she crossed the line 10 seconds clear of silver medallist Sassi. ‘I knew that she was second fastest boat and my plan was to get a good start, a max speed start. If I didn’t do that then my transitions wouldn’t be good, so it was a fast start, fast speed. I saw she stuck in my peripheral vision to my right for the first 200m but then I started dropping her and I hadn’t even started picking up for the final push. So, it’s a gold and a good time, but I’m still thinking back to World and what might have been.

‘There I had a super heat and super final but a but I got unlucky with the draw. In the semi-final I got a hectic draw and I just missed out on the B final and ended up gong into the C final. There I won and raced the third fastest time overall. If anything, that was the perfect race and everything went so well that I wish it had been 24 hours earlier. I would probably have medalled, but that’s how it goes.’

Now Van Tonder, as with the rest of the canoeing squad who have knocked out Olympic ‘A’ qualifiers, face a tense time waiting to see if they will get the green light to compete in Tokyo next year. They certainly have been making a statement as the canoeing powerhouse of Africa with those five medals so far and the promise of more to come on Friday.

To see canoeing’s full list of performances from Thursday, click here