'This bronze feels gold'
BRIDGITTE Hartley, her body aching all over, paddled the toughest race of her life to clinch a canoeing sprint bronze medal for South Africa by the narrowest of margins at the Olympics yesterday morning.
It was so close she didn't know if she had made the podium until the results flashed up on the giant scoreboard at Eton Dorney - an agonising minute or two afterwards.
"When I finally saw I had got the bronze, it felt like a gold," she said.
Hartley's gong was South Africa's fifth of these Games. Before last night's finals, the overall tally stood at three golds, one silver and a bronze - and each one had come from a water sport.
It was also the nation's first medal ever in kayaking.
Appropriately, Hartley - South Africa's first female medallist since high-jumper Hestrie Cloete in 2004 - won the medal on Women's Day.
"It's the most amazing day of my life," an emotional Hartley blurted out after her gut-wrenching effort of 1min 52.923sec.
Hungarian Danuta Kozak, a multiple world champion, took gold in th K1 500m race in 1min 51.456sec, beating defending champion Inna Osypenko-Radomska of Ukraine in 1:52.685.
"I was really hurting halfway through and I just thought: 'Go Bridgette - I don't know where I am, all you can do is push on and push on and cross the line.' Some people said in my heats and semifinal I stopped before the line so I kept going."
Hartley edged Sweden's Sofia Paldanius, a former K2 European champion, into fourth place by just 0.274sec, and Italy's 47-year-old legend Josefa Idem, the 2000 Olympic champion, was fifth, a mere 0.025sec further back.
Hartley couldn't work out immediately where she had finished, although she saw Kozak shouting and realised she had won.
"Then they put Ukraine in second and I was like 'please, please, please' and then came South Africa and I was like 'Oh, maybe they'll switch it around'. Maybe there's a photo finish. At World Cups it's so close that sometimes the results change.
"Then it just stayed there and it was: 'thank you, thank you'. It was the hardest race of my life."
Midway through the race, she was lying fifth, but she wasn't perturbed at that point.
"My race plan has never been winning off the start. I never really stress about it because I know I have a strong end."
Hartley, who couldn't hold back the tears until well after the medal ceremony, said she had slept little the night before the race.
Hartley was chuffed her family was on hand to watch her.
"It's amazing that my parents are here.
''It's the first time my dad has left the African continent - he comes from a farm in Oudtshoorn - and my mom and my step-dad (from Richard's Bay) are also here. And I have loads of friends."
Hartley, who surfed and paddled rivers before becoming a sprinter, said yesterday's race was harder than when she broke the world record in this event at the World Championships last year, going seven seconds faster.