Bridgitte Hartley feels the moment of seeing the SA flag raised, after winning a bronze medal in the 500m K1 Canoe sprint final at Eton Dorney Lake, at the London 2012 Olympic Games near London, on 9 August 2012.  Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / SA Sports Picture Agency

Bridgitte Hartley is the new IT girl of South African sport, after she became South Africa’s first woman Olympic medallist in eight years, when she bagged bronze in the K1 500m final at the 2012 London Olympic Games.

Reigning world canoeing marathon champion, Hank McGregor recently said Hartley’s bronze medal was “arguably the toughest of the six medals won by Team SA”.

In a statement released to the media, shortly after the team’s arrival back from the Games, McGregor said: “That medal was probably the hardest-earned medal that team SA brought home.

“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 also earned the praise of Deputy Minister of Sport Gert Ooshuizen who said her bronze medal effort was his personal highlight of the Olympic Games, particularly since it happened on National Women’s Day.

Speaking to gsport shortly after returning from London, and in between a host of public appearances, Bridgitte spoke about her Olympic preparation, how much South Africa’s support meant to her and how we can raise the profile of women in sport.

Hartley is awed by the crowd gathered to support Team SA on their return home, as she comes through the arrivals gate at OR Tambo international airport on 14 August. Photo: Liezel van der WesthuizenBridgitte, congratulations on winning South Africa’s first Olympic medal by a woman competitor in eight years! What does this medal mean to you?

This medal is something, which is awarded only every four years! So I feel proud to be one of the elite few to have been awarded an Olympic games medal for my achievement.

Talk us through your Olympic campaign; did it go according to plan?

I did not have a fixed plan when I started training for the Olympics, after I competed in the Beijing Olympics. I just knew I had to follow my coach and train with athletes who are better than me to improve! I would not recommend my Olympic campaign to many, as I was away from home for many months and traveled a lot by myself too.

How did it feel to make it through to the Final?

I had so much excitement inside me after winning my semi-final knowing that I was now racing the Final, and had a chance to get a medal for South Africa!

Did you feel the love coming from South Africa?

I felt the love from South Africa for sure!! I have tears in my eyes just reading this, as I know now how many people were cheering for me all over South Africa, and many places in the world who also know me.

What did you know about your competitors prior to the Olympics?

I knew some of them were medallists from this year’s World Cups and previous Olympics, and world championship medallists! But I tried to line up and say we are all equal on this start line and anyone in the final can take a medal, if they have courage and believe its possible.

What does this accomplishment mean for the future of your sporting career?

I know this achievement is changing my life, I hope many others can be motivated to keep dreaming and stay determined to achieve their goals, may it be in sport, culture or the work place! It’s boosted my career and made me excited to compete more.

What does it mean to you to represent South Africa?

Its a real honour, South Africa is a beautiful country and a very special one compared to other countries, as its made up of so many different cultures who are becoming more united thanks to our sporting achievements as a nation. I was proud seeing my flag being raised at the medal ceremony in London.

What are your immediate plans?

Holiday is on the cards! I plan to go to Portugal to celebrate with the company who makes my boat, NELO and other fellow Olympic medallists from canoe sprint, I will travel to Norway to visit a fellow training partner, and the fjords in Norway are apparently beautiful! I will then go to Miami to visit my brother who I don’t see often as he lives in the Caribbean.

Hartley pushes through the pain barrier to win bronze at the 500m K1 canoe final, becoming the first woman to medal for SA at an Olympic Games since Hestrie Cloete’s high jump silver in Athens 2004, on National Women’s Day, 9 August, 2012. Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / SA Sports Picture Agency

Where are you based?

I have been based at HPC in Pretoria while I was studying at Tuks, then I moved back to Richards Bay, my hometown. I spent many months leading up to the Olympics in Austria with my coach Nandor Almasi, and the Austrian team.

Describe a typical day in the life of Bridgitte Hartley …

Breakfast training, snack, maybe a small sleep, training then watch a movie or series. That’s a typical day, sometimes supplemented by Pilates or yoga or meeting friends for a meal, and if I am training in Richards Bay at home I go surfing sometimes too!

Who are your sponsors?

Peptopro, what’s best 4u, Rudy Project, HPC Pretoria, Lotto

How do you think we can raise the profile of women’s sport?

I think with good results from female athletes is a motivation already! I think we should boost young girls to help realize their dreams by doing events to encourage them.

For someone who does not know, what is kayaking?

It’s a sport in which we sit inside a boat, which is about 5m, and use a carbon fibre paddle with two blades, and we paddle forwards. There are single boats K1, which is my discipline, K2 for two people and K4 for four people, in sprint kayaking! There is also river kayaking, and surf skiing.

Hartley celebrates her introduction to the Olympic medaling podium after winning bronze in the K1 canoe 500m spring final at Eton Dorney Lake, a the London 2012 Olympic Games near London, on 9 August 2012.  Photo: Wessel Oosthuizen / SA Sports Picture AgencyWhat does your love for the sport come from?

I think the competition as well as the feeling of achievement when I am rewarded with a medal at the Olympics, as it shows the hard work and dedication has paid off!

When did you decide to take it seriously?

In 2006 I took sprint kayaking seriously.

What is your advice to youngsters keen to follow in your footsteps?

Make a goal and dream a lot, as dreams and goals do come true with lots of determination – Its achievable.

What inspires you?

Other people who have sacrificed something to achieve a goal, as I can relate to that! I also get inspired by other athletes or people who do a little extra, always to challenge themselves.

You’ve previously mentioned how reading Penny Heyns’ book inspired you. Tell us more…

I could relate to her book when she spoke about training camps, and her life had some similarities to my own at the moment, so it gave me peace of mind that I am doing the right thing!

Netball SA President Mimi Mthethwa, Olympic bronze medallist Bridgette Hartley and Sports and Recreation Minister, Mr Fikile Mbalula, during the Netball Diamond Challenge final between the SPAR Proteas and Malawi, at Heartfelt Arena on 18 August, 2012, in Pretoria. Photo: Reg Caldecott / Gallo Images

Who are your role models?

The Hungarian multiple medallists at Olympics and world championship events.

What is your greatest ambition?

To inspire others by my actions – I love helping others.