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Tiffany Koch is heading to the Paris Olympics, 12 years after competing at the London Games. Picture: @PADDLEPHOTOGRAPHY
Tiffany Koch is heading to the Paris Olympics, 12 years after competing at the London Games. Picture: @PADDLEPHOTOGRAPHY

Part of Team SA at the 2012 Olympics in London, sprint canoeist Tiffany Kruger was obviously keen on a second Olympics in Rio four years later.

Twenty-five years before those London Games, and ironically the same year that Kruger was born, American singer Tiffany had a No 1 hit single, I think we’re alone now.

And sadly, that’s very much how SA’s Tiffany (now Koch and a mom to two young daughters) felt just a year out from Rio.

“I had moved to Pretoria with my K2 partner, Esti van Tonder, to try to qualify for the 500m in Rio,” she recalls. “The qualification race was in Italy and we missed an automatic slot by one spot. And then our Olympic governing body denied us the continental ticket that would have seen us going to Rio.”

Tiffany’s loneliness was painfully real.

“To sacrifice another four years to try to qualify or only to be denied the chance again was just not an option,” says Kruger who has now gone back to her roots in Amanzimtoti, KwaZulu-Natal.

So she packed her paddle away, found a job in the telecommunications industry, married her now-husband, Kevin, in Johannesburg in 2017 and relocated back to the coast the next year.

Their daughters, Ivy and Lily, came along that same year and in 2020 respectively.

It was to be seven long years since 2015 that Koch picked up a paddle again.

“I went back to my lifesaving roots at Warnadoone Club, did a few carnivals, made the KZN team and then the national team for world champs in Texas but didn’t have funding to go.

“I also started doing some local surfski races (and getting badly beaten) and then did the KZN marathon champs.”

It was then that another huge influence made an unexpected reappearance in her life in the shape of legendary canoeist Lee McGregor, father of multiple world champion Hank.

Restored fire

“He had coached me when I was a junior 18 years ago and he asked how serious I was and if he could coach me again. I love a programme and for him to suddenly come on board was a blessing in disguise and he could see that I still had something to offer.

“Having Lee show that faith, restored the fire in me and lit the spark for a second time.”

Seafaring McGregor senior is now based in various US ports. Contacted for comment on his charge he humbly deferred attention to her. “I’m just a little gear in her big cog … it’s her road she’s travelling on, not mine”.

Last year Van Tonder and Helen Jansen van Vuuren qualified for the K2 canoe for the Paris Olympics by winning the continental championships in Nigeria. That opened the door for Canoeing SA to stage a trial to determine who would fill the boat as it’s the boat that gets the slot, and not necessarily the people who paddled it to the Olympic slot.

“Esti got hold of me earlier this year, asking if I’d be keen to give Paris a shot. At this stage I was training twice a day, six days a week and I was very excited. Even though it’s incredibly difficult having two girls from different cities with different coaches, I told her I will be on form and that she’s making the right choice.”

Turning 37 this year, Koch’s all too aware of the chance she’s been given.

“We have a good history together. It felt surreal that we could jump in a boat nine years later to rebuild a dream that was shattered in 2015. So I’ve come full circle back to my old coach and old partner. I’m blessed because these chances don’t come along too often.”

The combo came through a gruelling three-race shoot-out on Germiston Lake, winning the first and last races, with Van Tonder blacking out as they crossed the finish line due to a heart issue she was overcoming at the time.

Few congratulations

“Esti fell out and I dived in and supported her,” says Koch. “The lifesavers on the jet ski thought we were hugging in celebration but I was actually using my lifesaving skills to ensure she was OK and didn’t drown. She went off to the ambulance and I paddled the sinking boat back to shore.

“There were a few congratulations for us afterwards but our main concern was for Esti and it certainly didn’t feel like an Olympic celebration,” she recalls ruefully.

Van Tonder has noticed the difference in her paddling partner since 2015.

“It’s her motivation, her reasons for motivation going into this Olympics … in the past we were both very results-driven, almost to the point of that overwhelming the bigger picture of what we’d achieved and still capable of achieving. We were very hard on ourselves.

“She’s shown such a huge level of maturity since becoming a mother and taking a step back and seeing that life has so much more to offer than this relentless battering of sport and the ridiculous goals that we’re trying to achieve.

“Now she’s got two beautiful girls, and husband Kevin is an amazing support system as well. She’s only gained in the years she’s taken off and has found purer reasons to achieve.

“It’s about more than the results; it’s about showing your family that hard work and discipline gets you there even though life slaps you down so many times. She’s still super organised but her reasons behind what she’s doing now are just so much more pure now.”

The road to Paris has many potholes though and it’s not an easy one for Koch, considering that many of the canoeists they’ll be up against in Paris are professional athletes and train in, and are in tune with, the very latest boat.

Completely self-funded

“I wake up at 4.20am to be in gym at 5am. I get home, get the girls ready for school, start my day-job, fetch the kids again at 12 and start working again [and that includes housework].” There’s a second training session in the afternoon and more work at night if she hasn’t managed to finish it yet.

And all of this is done completely self-funded. “I’m very lucky to have a PVM supplements sponsor and get sponsored sunglasses from Oakley, but that’s it.

“Thankfully Esti is on Sascoc’s Opex programme so [she] uses some of that funding to come down and train with me once a month. But of course it’s not ideal.

“She has a new boat but I’m still using the boat that Sascoc bought me for the 2012 Olympics. The latest Nelo boats come in at between R50,000-R60,000 so there’s no ways I can afford that.”

Yet, the fire still burns strongly in her belly.

“Training’s going well and I know what I need to do to improve for Paris. One benefit of being older is that I’m using my training time wisely and am a lot more open to changes and ideas, compared with my previous one-set mind of my younger years.

“I’m definitely stronger (maybe it’s having had my two kids) and though I lost muscle tone when I stopped training in 2015, I’m lighter now than then. I was 68kg then; now I’m 64kg, much leaner and much stronger.”

Just a few months out from Paris and Tiffany’s no longer alone; she has a loyal canoeing partner, a loving family, passionate canoeing community and the love of the SA sporting family to fall back on.

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