Bridgitte Hartley – Kayak Sprint Olympic Bronze Medalist

On a positive and inspirational note, I had the privilege of sitting down with our lovely Bridgitte Hartley, to many a surprise Olympic bronze medalist in the Kayak sprint event. She is the first South African woman to achieve an Olympic medal on National Woman’s Day.  Though she was made aware of the fact that she would be competing on this special day, one can understand why this detail faded from her memory when she woke on the specific morning to take part in a historic event.

Meeting Hartley was no let down. Face to face she is prettier, looks healthier, epitomizes fitness and the conversation was as expected from a twenty nine year old human movement science graduate and athlete that has sacrificed, worked hard and focused on the ultimate goal of a medal at the ultimate sporting event.

As another author noted, her achievement is significant as unlike many other sports categories it has little if any supporting structures in South Africa. In a recent conversation with Graham Hill, Coach of Chad Le Clos and Head Coach for all Olympic swimmers at the last four Olympic Games, he commented: “Money makes medals”. What this means is obvious, and it is exactly what Hartley did not have much of. Still she achieved beyond expectation. How and why?

Of course the answers are not rocket science and probably common sense, but as is often the case, common sense is too frequently not common practice. Which means, common sense, the so called obvious ingredients that mix up success in all endeavours cannot be stressed enough. 

Not surprisingly it has taken hard work, many hours of training and sacrifice, being tired a lot, not being able to visit friends, sacrificing a personal life, weekends being different as Saturday’s were taken up by hard training. The first time she represented South Africa was in 2006. She was a part time student and had to work as a waitress in order to pay for studies and living expenses. Better results brought to bear some funding from SASCOC and her federation, so when she completed her studies in 2010 she could focus on training only – twice a day with gym sessions.

Because her sport is small in South Africa, Hartley had to train overseas often, which wasn’t always easy. If she did not do this she would not have a Coach. While there she had moments when she felt very lonely, missed home and had no friends to visit, and at times questioned what she was doing. About this she comments: “It made me stronger and probably made me appreciate my medal more”. This enjoyment was clearly visible when Hartley stepped on to that podium.

Why could she do this? Hartley says: “I think it is that I don’t ever give up. Once I say I want to do something and I really want it I don’t give up no matter what pain I have to go through. I have always been very competitive in everything that I do. Even at school I always tried to be the best at everything. It’s in my nature.”

Achieving at this level and anywhere else in life is all about belief, self-belief and attitude. Hartley has found that she often achieves according to the standards fixed in her mind: “If I haven’t before the competition set my goal in my head to achieve the final and probably the top five or even a podium position, then when I reach the final it is like achieving my goal. When you have achieved something big, if that’s all you have set your mind to do, it is interesting that your brain seems to be content and switches off, unless you can change that.”

I experienced this myself when as a Black Belt I participated in South African National Championships. I wanted my Provincial Colours and a medal would have secured this for me. As soon as I knew I had the bronze in the bag my mind switched off and I lost the remaining two fights easily. I learnt the valuable life principle of setting ones standards as high as possible.

Hartley wants to make a difference out there by inspiring people to achieve their goals, and not necessarily in sport only. She explains: “When it comes to putting your mind to achieving a goal it is not necessarily sport. It might be in one’s career. If you keep working on something and you stay dedicated and you really want to achieve something you will do what you can to get there, even if the goal was to become the CEO of a company.” Hartley believes strongly in setting goals and achieving them, even though one does not always succeed.

When she lined up for the final race she never once wondered about what should have been. She lined up thinking “I’m prepared. I have done everything my coach said. I have basically done everything I possibly could, no regrets.” She now believes her actions have spoken for her and hopes to “inspire other youngsters who either take up my sport, or other sports and even employees in the workplace to believe that if you really put your mind to it you can achieve it, but not overnight.“

Her final message is to believe in yourself and get to that space where you don’t place your competitors around you on a pedestal: “This is possibly what happened to Chad. Yes, he looked up to Michael Phelps, but he knew he had done the training and he just raced his race. So, just race your race and do what you’ve done. The difference comes in not placing others on a pedestal above yourself. This is what I mean by believing in yourself and having the necessary confidence – being able to believe you are all equal, let’s do what we have practiced and trained for and may the best person win.”  And this is applicable in all areas of life, even in the “sport” of growing one’s business that involves battling it out against very confident competitors!

Although Hartley is currently enjoying the ride of being hailed as a national hero, her mind is focused on the fact that she will soon begin training. She knows it will hurt, but she sees it as part of the process of moving towards that next achievement at next year’s world championships.

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Adriaan, as an accomplished author and leadership advisor, has been interviewing and working with top leaders for more than 15 years. He is the Co-Founder and CEO of Leadership Platform. (Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP)

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