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London – Canoeist Bridgitte Hartley, who scooped South Africa's fifth medal of the London Olympics, said her third-place finish in the women's K1 500m final on Thursday was the highlight of her life.
“It really is emotional,” Hartley said.
“This is what every athlete dreams of. It's the most amazing thing that has happened in my life so far.”
After crossing the line, it took a few seconds before the 29-year-old from Richards Bay fully accepted that she had secured a medal behind Hungarian world champion Danuta Kozak and defending Olympic champion Inna Osypenko-Radomska of the Ukraine.
“I heard the Hungarian shouting and knew she definitely got it,” Hartley said.
“Then they put Ukraine (on the scoreboard).
“I was like 'please, please, please', then South Africa (came up) and I thought maybe they would switch it round, maybe there was a photo finish, but it just stayed there.”
This was Hartley's second Olympics, having competed in the K2 1 000m with Michele Eray at the 2008 Beijing Games, where they reached the semi-finals before being eliminated.
“Beijing taught me about the hype, so I came here knowing what to expect and able to tone it down to treat it as a normal race,” Hartley said.
“The first two days were still unsettling as we could only use the end of the warm-up venue (due to the rowing competition).
“It was very wavy and horrible. I was not comfortable in the boat and I was getting stressed and very anxious.
“One afternoon I freaked out, but Nandor (Almasi, her coach) got me to relax.”
Hartley had finished second in her heat at the Eton Dorney canoeing venue before winning her semi-final.
“The heat felt very good,” she said.
“I had a good start and everything felt good.
“My boat movement was good. It almost felt like I should have gone faster, but there was no need to because I was right up there.
“I didn't want to get over confident because it was just the heat, so I thought I must just treat the semi like a final.
“I was confused over the progression and kept saying before each race, 'you have to be top two'.
“In the last 100m of the semi I thought, 'Bridgitte don't mess this up, you have to give it your all'.
“There wasn't even an A final to fall back on, so I pushed and pushed across the line.
“All I could think was, 'oh my gosh, I just won my semifinal, that's crazy.” – Sapa