Not in her wildest dreams did Bridgitte Hartley, a two-time Olympian and London 2012 bronze medallist, ever think she would one day get to paddle against the world’s best in her home town.

But on Saturday it will finally happen. The 34-year-old South African will shimmy onto the water at Camps Drift in Petermaritzburg to take on the might of marathon paddling in the 2017 ICF World Championships.

It’s not canoe sprint, the sport in which she has made her name as an Olympic athlete, but she is no stranger to canoe marathons and the 26.2 kilometre course holds no fears for a paddler who thrives on hard work.

“It’s such a special thing to be able to do,” Hartley said.

“Knowing that I will never be able to sprint on home soil in my whole life, knowing that I can race a Marathon World Championships here is going to be so spectacular, because I know that the home crowd is absolutely incredible already and by the weekend I think it will be double the size.

“I feel like they will carry us.”

It’s meant a change of approach this year, but Hartley has never been frightened to break the mould.

While logic would tell you that to match it with the best in the world you have to spend a lot of time in Europe, Hartley has been happy to stay home.

“It’s definitely been an unusual year, and I’ve taken myself out of my comfort zone about 10 million times,” she said.

“It’s been really challenging, but I think it’s been good challenges and I think it’s put me in a good space for tomorrow’s race.

“I’ve been managing to mimic the marathon-style races in the surf-ski races earlier this year, as well as competing in the Dusi Marathon, so I’ve stayed strong and been able to compete in a lot more local races, which I wouldn’t usually be able to do.

“So it’s been pretty exciting been able to test myself against the local girls, and up until now it’s been really good.”

What’s also exciting for Hartley and fellow South African ‘veterans’ like six-time individual World Champion, Hank McGregor, has been the emergence of several young paddlers already at these World Championships.

By Friday night the home team had picked up two silver and two bronze medals, with the promise of more to come this weekend.

“It was so amazing yesterday watching the youngsters racing and winning the medals, and I definitely think watching, I’m really excited that our younger paddlers are going to come through and follow the lead of Hank McGregor,” Hartley said.

“I think there has been a big gap after him, but hopefully there will be another one coming soon.”
And as for the future? The Olympic flame still burns bright for Hartley. She competed in both the 200 and 500 in Rio, and if she holds her form, is likely to still be one of Africa’s fastest paddlers come 2020.

“I’m sitting on the fence about whether to qualify for Tokyo or not, but I didn’t want to give up the opportunity of racing for South Africa in a marathon event on home soil,” she said.

“And I know that marathon events you can keep going for many more years than sprint racing. But I definitely haven’t given up on sprint racing, that’s what I’ve done for most of my paddling career and I really love it.

“It’s such a special event to take part in, the Olympic Games, so if I could do one more I would, but marathon I definitely wouldn’t give up on either. I think I’m only just starting to learn some of the tactics now, so that’s something that’s also exciting for the future.”

But that’s the future. Short term Hartley will carry the whole of Pietermaritzburg and South Africa on her shoulders when she hits the water at Camps Drift on Saturday.

The ICF Canoe Marathon World Championships will be held at Camps Drift in Pietermaritzburg from 8 to 10 September 2017, preceded by the Masters Cup competition. More information can be found at

Canoe Marathon