South African Bridgitte Hartley, the first and still the only sprint canoe Olympic medalist for her country, has announced her retirement from the sport.

Hartley became a household name in her African country when she won bronze in the women’s K1 500 at the London 2012 Olympic Games. She was also the first African athlete to win a medal in that Olympic discipline.

Hartley also won three ICF world championship medals, and eleven medals at ICF sprint world cups, including four gold. Underlining her versatility, she also has medals from canoe marathon and has competed at ICF Ocean Racing World Championships.

In recent years Hartley has been prominent in campaigns to open up opportunities for athletes’ post-career. She has been part of the International Olympic Committee’s WISH (Women in Sport High Performance Pathway) leadership program, which focuses on equipping women coaches to take the next step in their careers.

Hartley has taken on a role as a coach at a South African college, and will also be one of the ICF’s Talent Identification Program (TIP) coaching instructors at this year’s Junior and U23 canoe sprint world championships in Italy.

She has also taken on the role of Chair of the ICF’s Athlete Commission, where she has set herself the goal of strengthening the voice of athletes at all levels of the decision-making process.

She said taking the decision to retire from canoe sprint was difficult and emotional, but she is already enjoying the next chapter of her sporting career.

“It helps to have a stepping stone out of your sport,” Hartley said.

“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! It feels good to know I have made an impact in my own way. 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.”

The South African said preparing athletes for life after competition is a major challenge for all sports. Her work with the ICF’s athlete committee has further emphasised the need to put in place structures and support to help competitors make the transition away from the sporting field.

“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,” she said.

Hartley will continue to compete in ocean racing events, including next month’s Prescient Freedom Paddle surfski race in Cape Town.

South Africa Bridgitte Hartley

Canoe Sprint
Canoe Marathon
Canoe Ocean Racing