Hartley Szeged
Bridgitte Hartley in action at the Hungarian sprint course in Szeged. Hartley represented South Africa at the sprint world championships for over a decade. PHOTO: Bence Vekassy

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 Athlete Commission.

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.

Bridgitte Hartley Olympic Medal
Bridgitte Hartley with the bronze medal she won in the women’s 500m K1 final at the London Olympic Games. PHOTO: Wessel Oosthuisen / Canoeing SA Archives

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 international careers.

“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 new identity.”

“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?”