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Esti Olivier, left, and Tiffany Koch. Picture: BERTIE BAARD
Esti Olivier, left, and Tiffany Koch. Picture: BERTIE BAARD

Pretoria canoeist Esti Olivier finally nailed down an elusive Olympic Games qualification slot at the weekend, exactly 20 years after starting to sprint competitively.

She and 2012 London Olympian Tiffany Koch (née Kruger) secured the slot at the weekend’s national championships on Victoria Lake, Germiston.

But Olivier wasn’t really around to let the news sink in. Instead she had fainted from sheer exhaustion and toppled out of the boat as they crossed the line after the third and final shoot-out series against multi-Olympian Bridgitte Hartley and Michelle Burns.

Thankfully in Koch, Olivier was in safe hands, as the former is a national level life-saving ace and Kock supported her to a jet ski that took her ashore.

“It was a complete blur,” said Olivier this week as she reflected on a decidedly rollercoaster two decades to Olympic qualification.

“Before the race I told Tiff to get me to the side if she doesn’t hear anything from me and we joked about her being a lifeguard. I came to when I felt her pull me up and help me onto the jet ski board.

“I couldn’t see anything, but then heard Nkosi Mzolo’s voice. He does great work with Soweto Canoe Club and will be our manager at the Paris Olympics. He’s also a paramedic and firefighter, which helps things.

“Then I heard [coach] Neil du Plessis’ voice, and my husband, Gerhard, ran to get my medication once he saw me safely into the ambulance. 

“I wasn’t worried about my life being in danger, but just felt really terrible and knew I had to calm down and drink my meds. I could hear people coming to congratulate me but it really wasn’t the way I’d want to celebrate an Olympic-qualifying victory.”

Olivier’s path to Paris has been peppered with pitfalls. “From an early age I was always pushing my limits when it came to paddling, always racing in an age-group ahead of me. I reached a few points where I thought, ‘this is it’”.

This was all before she had even finished school at Afrikaans Hoër Meisieskool in Pretoria.

“In Grade 10 I just played hockey and even asked the coach to put me in the B side because I just didn’t want the pressure. It was one of my best decisions I ever made.”

Gap year

Come matric and she was back to racing for senior spots and wasn’t at school much as she built up to and raced world championships.

But behind the scenes the pressure-cooker was also building up and after matriculating in 2010, she decided to take a gap year — and instead fell through the gap.

“I cracked completely, stopped playing all sport, fell into a deep depression. February 2011 found me being drunk for days on end,” she reflects with sobering honesty.

And then, as so often been the case, a saviour stepped into her life. “Just before I had my cave-in I met Gerhard, the man who would one day be my husband.

“He stuck around during my darkest times and gave me a reason to get off the couch and out of bed and I’m forever grateful for that.”

She has also put her own experiences into good effect and now has an honours degree in psychology, having put her masters on hold to go full out for the 2024 Olympics.

“It’s helped me being proactive at not allowing myself to get into that situation again. I’ve learnt my triggers and built my coping mechanisms. I particularly love the neuropsychology side of things. I have a huge love for kids with neurological issues, and have a group of kids whom I still work with it. It is the highlight of my week.”

Rolling forward and she made her first A Finals at U23 international level in 2013 before another hiccup saw her losing her Opex Programme funding from Olympic governing body Sascoc. She is still in the dark about the reasons for losing the funding.

“But what it taught me was that I’d never be reliant on funding again and decided I’d rather work myself to death to fund myself. I ended up taking on three jobs – and I was still studying!”

Rocky grounds

On to 2015 and the roots of her Olympic K2 journey began with Tiffany Kruger. The initial grounds of the relationship were decidedly rocky. 

“We definitely didn’t use to be good friends and were very big rivals. As luck would have it we went away on a three-week tour and ended up sharing a room. There was only one double bed and a small cot-type bed that was too small for a normal-sized human. So we ended up sharing a double bed for three weeks.”

Thus the roots of friendship found common ground.

“We started realising that we had so much in common and that we actually could get on quite well,” she said.

They missed out on the Rio Olympics qualification. Kruger married and went on to have two daughters with husband Kevin. But the two women’s friendship endured.

“She was a bridesmaid at my own wedding. We ended up going through so much and built an amazing bond. She’s always been in touch and invested so much in my career.”

Covid hit Olivier hard and she ended up with a heart condition and like so many other competitive athletes, headed to Cape Town to see top cardiologist Wouter Basson. She ended up having to take medication to keep her heart rate in check. Hardest of all, she had to take things easy for at least six months.

But it wasn’t long ago that Olivier decided for another crack at the Olympics. Now aged 30, her competitive clock is ticking.

Wondrous week

“I phoned Tiff and asked her if she wanted to go full circle and as luck would have it she’d started training hard again.”

A true seismic shift in her approach to life came at her wedding in April 2021 when she had a wondrous week with friends in the tiny Eastern Cape village of Rhodes.

“It turned out to be a week of freedom and my mindset shifted that week. I realised that I could finally say no to unreasonable requests, I could postpone things, I could be ‘selfish’ and look after myself after 30 years of putting everyone but myself first.”

Last year proved bittersweet. Her new mental freedom caused her to travel to Duisburg, Germany, to try qualifying for the K1 for Paris. She missed out by just one spot.

“While we were in Slovakia in May during the World Cups we heard that I was back on the Opex programme which was a huge relief as it meant I could travel frequently to Durban to train with Tiffany.”

She also went to the African Continental Championships in Nigeria to tick another required qualifying box, despite challenging conditions.

“We also had sad family news though. My mom was diagnosed with colon cancer and my aunt also got cancer and had to have her leg amputated. And all the stress had the effect of bringing my heart condition back, so it was tough going just to get to this weekend’s selection trial.”

But now she has finally made Paris a dream come true.

“I still need to put in a lot more hard work though.”

Make that heart work as well.

“I’m going back to Dr Basson next month and we’ll see where we go from there. But I’m happy in the fact that I have every bit of support that I need … there are a crazy number of good people in my life whom I owe this qualification to and can never thank enough.”

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