Bridgitte Hartley captured South Africa's fifth medal of the London Games when she finished third in the women's K1 500 metres at Eton Dornay on Thursday morning.
Inset: South Africa's Bridgitte Hartley, the fastest woman ever in the K1 500 metres sprint, won a bronze medal at the 2012 London Olympic Games (Photo: Dave Macleod, Gameplan Media)
It was a first for South Africa and it came on the country's national Women's Day; the country's sprint canoeists had never before won an Olympic medal.
The final, which took place in bright, sunny conditions, was a tightly-contested race, with all eight of the starters in with a legitimate shot at claiming a medal.
Hartley, after winning her semi-final, went into it as the second fastest qualifier behind Hungary's Danuta Kozak, who had already won gold in the K4 500 metres.
At the sound of the buzzer, the field burst away with defending champion Inna Osypenko-Radomska, competing in lane two, powering her way to the front. An excellent crowd led loud vocal support to the competitors.
Hartley, racing in lane five in a craft decorated in the colours of the South African flag, which would surely have won the award for best paint job had there been one, passed through the 100 metres mark in fifth place.
Kozak was challenging Osypenko-Radomska for the lead, but the blue and yellow boat of the Ukraine star was taking it out at a furious pace and she edged further ahead to lead Kozak by half-a-second at the 250-metre mark.
Finland's Anne Rikala was in third, 0.9 seconds off the lead, with Sweden's Sifia Paldanius in fourth, at 1.3 seconds behind Osypenko-Radomska.
Hartley was fifth to the halfway mark, almost one-and-a-half seconds off the lead. She had finished strongly in her semi-final race to claim victory and she would have to do it once more to claim a medal, except this time the challenge posed by the field was even greater.
Up front, Osypenko-Radomska was beginning to tire under the relentless pace she had set, and Hungary's Kozak was hauling her in. Hartley, meanwhile, was involved in a neck-and-neck tussle with Sweden's Sofia Paldanius, the Italian Josefa Idem, who had won silver four years earlier in Beijing, Britain's Rachel Cawthorne and Denmark's Henriette Hansen for third place.
With 100 metres to go, Kozak had taken over at the front and built up a lead of a third-of-a-boat over Osypenko-Radomska. Hartley was practically level with Paldanius and Idem.
Kozak powered on to victory by almost a boat length over the Ukranian paddler, clocking 1:51.456, while Hartley finished strongly to take third place, just ahead of Paldanius and Idem.
The South African's time was 1:52.923, less than three-tenths-of-a-second behind Osypenko-Radomska and almost three-tenths ahead of Paldanius.
While Hartley has previously won gold medals in World Cup events, the Olympic bronze medal is, no doubt, the pinnacle of the 29-year-old's career thus far.
At the medal ceremony, when her name was announced as the winner of the bronze medal, she jumped up onto the podium, bouncing up and down, a wide smile across her face, waving happily to the crowd.
Hartley received her Olympic medal, with the soundtrack of "Chariots of Fire" playing in the background. She had made history for South Africa, the first sprint canoeist in the country's 18 visits to the Olympic Games to win a medal.
After her success, South Africa lies in 20th place on the 2012 Olympic medals table with three golds, one silver, and Hartley's bronze.
That equals the country's medals haul at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games - until now South Africa's most successful Olympics since its return from isolation in 1992.
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