Olympic canoeists on the journey from Hungary to Paris

South Africa’s Olympic canoeists get a taste of what lies ahead this weekend as they take the next paddle strokes on their journey to Paris 2024 at the first World Cup event of the year in Szeged, Hungary.

South Africa has a team of seven paddlers at the regatta, but all eyes will be on the men’s crew of Andrew Birkett and Hamish Lovemore, and the fairytale women’s duo of Esti Olivier and Tiffany Koch. Both combinations will be competing in the 500m K2 races after they earned their places in the SA team for the Olympics at the national championships last month.

Olivier and Koch will be the first South Africans in action this weekend when they take to the water in their heats early on Friday afternoon, with Birkett and Lovemore facing their first test as an international sprint crew about an hour later. The semi-finals for both events will take place later on Friday with the finals on Saturday afternoon.

For both crews, this is the start of their intensive build up to the highlight of the 2024 racing season, when they will line up to represent South Africa at the Olympic regatta in August.

Birkett is well-known on the international long-distance racing circuit, but his devastating end sprint that won him K1 and K2 World Marathon titles in 2018, and the K1 title again in 2022, will be severely tested over the short 500m distance.

Lovemore may not be as well known, but is regarded locally as one of the country’s future canoeing stars and their classic youth and experience combination will be watched with interest.

For Olivier and Koch, the 2024 Olympics is a story of unfinished business. Koch (née Kruger) paddled in the 2012 Olympics in London, but then the duo missed out on qualifying for Rio 2016 and Koch retired from international competition.

Olivier doggedly struggled on and just failed to earn selection for Tokyo, but persuaded Koch out of retirement for the selection event earlier this year and their resurrection as a crew and subsequent qualification is something of a fairytale.

Sandwiched between the 500m K2 heats on Friday will be the men’s 500m K1 heats with Samuel Butcher and Callam Davis aiming to book their places in the semi-finals.

Late on Saturday afternoon, Kyle Friedenstein and Davis will be paddling in the 1 000m K1 heats followed by Olivier and Koch who will split up for the 500m K1 event. All four will be hoping looking to qualify for semi-finals and finals on Sunday morning, with Koch and Olivier also scheduled to paddle in the 5 000m K1 race, while Butcher and Friedenstein will be in the corresponding men’s event to wrap up the regatta.

Image: Esti Olivier (right) and Tiffany Koch resurrected a partnership from eight years ago to earn selection for the SA Canoe team to go to the Paris Olympics. (Canoeing SA)

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