Bridgitte Hartley will be a force to contend with at the London Olympics. Picture: Supplied

She loves surfing and eating chocolate on her days off – and she’s one of the fastest paddlers in the world.

That’s Bridgitte Hartley, 29, from Zululand, northern KwaZulu-Natal, who will be going for gold at the London Olympics in a few months time.

Hartley – in training in Linz, Austria, with her coach Nandor Almasi – told The Independent on Saturday that not qualifying for the A Final, which is the top nine paddlers at the World Championships in Hungary last August, put her chances of paddling in the Olympics at stake and upped her determination levels.

“So I raced my B final, thinking it was my last chance and ended up racing the world’s fastest time for that race” – so securing her place in this year’s Olympics.

She has been tipped as one of the favourites for the Olympic K1 500m sprint paddle, but she is quick to point out “every athlete has a goal to get that gold medal”, which includes hot contenders from Hungary, Germany, Ukraine and Australia.

She was still on a learning curve when she raced in the Beijing Olympics and since then has notched up a shelf full of medals, including being the first South African to win a sprint world championship medal.

Growing up in Pretoria and Richards Bay, Hartley was sports mad at school, taking part in hockey, athletics, gymnastics and water polo.

She also fell in love with surfing during her years in Richards Bay and dabbled in paddling during her final two high school years when she had returned to Pretoria.

But it was only in her second year at Tuks university that she was introduced to sprint paddling and she has never looked back since.

After the Beijing Olympics in 2008, her first major win came in 2009 for the K1 500m in the World Cup championship – a year in which she collected eight medals over the racing season.

“I have made so many great friends all over the world and while there are beautiful places to see, life is not always greener on the other side.

“South Africa is more free than many places in the rest of the world and it’s easy to drive a few hours to a lovely beach, game park or mountain.

“South Africa is still home and our biltong is unique to us,” she says.

Describing herself as spontaneous and determined, there are no pretensions about the down-to-earth South African.

She loves socialising at a braai or sushi bar and has a “major soft spot” for chocolate.

With her Olympic training regime well under way, Hartley says she paddles up to three hours a day, plus gym and running sessions during the week, as well as making sure she has enough to eat to balance her rigorous training schedule.

And with a personal philosophy of “laugh at yourself and nothing can touch you”, when she’s not in training, Hartley will more than likely be found hanging ten in the surf off the KZN coast.

She also loves reading, particularly autobiographies of successful sportsmen and women.

“I’ve enjoyed books by Penny Haynes and Kelly Holmes, which allow me to imagine myself in their shoes, while I also admire great paddlers like Katalin Kovacs and Natasha Janic, who are multiple world and Olympic champions.”

No doubt she has picked up a few tips from the champs and South Africans will be cheering her along to bring home the gold in a couple of months time.