Hartley's bronze SA's best?
Durban - As Richards Bay based sprint kayaker Bridgitte Hartley
returns home with South Africa's first ever Olympic canoeing medal, reigning world marathon canoeing champion, Hank McGregor, says the bronze medal she won in the women's 500m K1 final was arguably the toughest of the six medals won by Team SA.
"That medal was probably the hardest earned medal that team SA brought home," McGregor said in a statement released to the media on Tuesday.
"I don't think anyone fully understands how tough it is for a South African paddler to try and just qualify a boat for the Olympics, let alone get strong enough to win a medal. There were massive sacrifices involved in Bridg (Hartley) winning that medal and she deserves every bit of credit she gets for it.
"Sprinting is a cinderella sport in South Africa and most paddlers get attracted to big races like the Fish and the Dusi. We have no international regattas anywhere on the African continent so to prepare and race against the best you have to go overseas, which involves huge sacrifices, personal and practical," he said.
Hartley spent much of the four years after her Olympic debut in Beijing in Europe, staying close to the one coach she trusted, Hungarian Nandor Almasi, who was contracted to coach the Austrian national team. She spent countless months in Budapest and in Austria training with Almasi and racing against male and female paddlers from top European nations and clubs.
Hartley and fellow sprinter Tiffany Kruger
were co-opted onto Team Best 4 Kayak Centre earlier in the year, shortly after getting offered practical assistance from the Natal Canoe Club in Pietermaritzburg. The team support helped the Olympians through the demanding and expensive pre-Olympic build-up phase.
"Canoeing qualification for the Olympics is brutal," said McGregor. "Unlike many other sports where you have the luxury of trying to make a set qualifying time, paddling is a once off at the world champs, and if you are off your game, that's it! Thanks for coming," said McGregor.
With canoeing basking in the limelight after Hartley's medal winning exploits McGregor is eager to see changes being rung to make it easier for the next generation of sprinters to follow in Hartley's footsteps.
"Why can't we have a World Cup in South Africa?" he asked. "It would open new doors to hundreds of talented paddlers and attract more top internationals to train and race here, which is what we need."
"I have huge respect for what Hartley achieved," said McGregor, a two time world marathon champion and a paddler who tried his hand at international sprints with little success. "I was watching her final at home on Women's Day and was blown away at how strong she was at the end. She didn't have the greatest of starts but if the race had been 50m longer she would have won gold."
"She has set the bar for the rest of us," said McGregor. "She has proved that it can be done, despite all the obstacles and hurdles in the way. Let’s capitalise on this to get the interest going in sprinting and try to get more sprint regattas going and ideally push for Africa to finally get a sprint World Cup. We got that right in marathon so we should try to do the same for the sprinters."
"It is a philosophy change that we need," added McGregor. "Understand that we need infrastructure and coaches and cut out much of the travel to Europe and we will soon have others ready to do what Bridg (Hartley) achieved in London and maybe even better."