‘My road to gold’ with Birgit Fischer – the most successful paddlesport athlete ever

Extract from the book ‘MEIN WEG ZUM GOLD‘ by WPA Academy member Birgit Fischer. The first chapter of the book ‘Das Gold Rennen’ is about her ‘Golden Race’ at the Athens 2004 Olympic Games, translated to English by Ulla Fischer.

  • Athens, Friday, August 27th 2004
  • Olympic final, K4 Women (Birgit Fischer, Carolin Leonhardt, Maike Nollen and Katrin Wagner)
  • 500m, Start 9:20

I hear the calm voice of the starter:
“The start will be in 10 seconds!”

The starting signal!
All nine start gates pull down simultaneously at lightning speed.
It is on. Everything depends on doing the right thing in the coming 90 seconds.
The hunt for gold has started.

Our start was good but that of the Hungarians even better. From the corner of my eye I manage to see that the Polish ladies, on our left, get stuck at the start. Maybe their late entering into the start gate caused that. That gives me a clear vision of the Hungarian boat, which immediately takes the lead. I try to stay calm and not to increase the stroke frequency too rapidly. It is hard, considering that there are 64 other paddle blades swirling around us and my girls in the back of the boat are pushing hard. During the start, a pressure of up to 35 kg per paddle blade may arise. At that point the paddle strikes the water at least two times per second. The first 100 meter are over. I still feel perfectly fine and try to find a powerful stroke rate now. Maike, sitting right behind me, whose job it is to copy my stroke rhythm and pass it on to the others, seems to do a great job as our boat is running smoothly. Despite that, the Hungarian boat seems to increase their lead. I feel panic creeping over me but try to suppress it.  The cheering audience is getting louder which pushes my motivation, but we are only at buoy 10. The distances between the buoys are exactly 12.50 meter, which means that we still have 375m to master. I feel that my team is only concentrating on itself without checking up on our competition left and right, as agreed upon before the start. This way, I hope they do not realize that the Hungarians continue to increase the gap. I try to get a hold of them! Inevitably, I remember our race in Australia four years ago, where we had been in the same situation. The Hungarian ladies took the lead and we fell back. Then, in Sydney, we were able to push our boat across the finish line just about a meter ahead of the Hungarians and scored gold. “So nothing is lost just yet”, I encourage myself. About half the distance lies behind us now and I start feeling unease again. Even though our K4 is running perfectly smooth, we do not seem to catch up with the golden boat of the Hungarians. In second place we pass the 250 meter buoy, a good 3 meter behind the Hungarian boat. The tip of our boat is in line with the Hungarian ‘stroke-woman’ [the person who sets the pace]. The race already lasts around 45 seconds. However, times are only of secondary importance. In the end, all that counts is who crosses the imaginary finish line first.

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The water in front of us is glassily and the yellow buoys sparkle in the sun. With the help of a steering system between my feet, I keep our boat centered on the lane, which is exact 9.50 meter wide. Behind the starter field, the water is stirred up and small swirls arise from the rapid paddle strokes. During the race, the athletes put a pressure of 22kg to 25kg on the paddle blades with each stroke. Right from the beginning, the Hungarian ladies started off with a higher stroke frequency than ours. With each second they gain more distance and increase their lead. Around 200 meter to the finish line. By now, I start seeing the lady on third position in the Hungarian boat out of the corner of my eye. That means they are at least 5 meter ahead of us. Never have we been that far behind them. I am getting angry and also a little desperate. Something has to happen!

I am waiting for a signal from Katrin. We agreed that she would shout a loud “Hopp” once we passed the 150 meter buoy. Maybe I had missed it. The yells of the audience are one loud noise in which the “Hopp” might have drowned. But then I realize that we have not even passed the 150 meter mark yet. But we have to do something now or the race will be lost!

At around 180 meter before the finish line I think to myself: “Now or never”! I shout “Pressure” and pull through with all my strength. Suddenly I feel an enormous push from the back of the boat. This gives me the chance to increase the stroke frequency once more. Right in that moment I believe to have heard the “Hopp” from Katrin as well. We have to give everything now- keep the pressure on the paddle blade. The finish comes closer. I hear another command but from a different team. I can feel that my team is still going strong. That is a good sign. For a second I think to myself: will Caro manage to pull through? She had struggled with a sore throat the past days and had to skip some of the training sessions. But she will excel, I know it.

But I do not have time to think about that now. The finish line comes closer and we are clearly in second place. I am shouting something again, but probably more to push myself. Maybe Maike, who is sitting right behind me, had heard it. I want them to know that I have not given up just yet.

In a split second I think to myself that we might have started our final spurt too late. I try to convince myself that the second rank is also good. “Why do I have those shitty negative thoughts?”, I think to myself. It was me who had always told the girls that nothing is lost until the very end. I feel my team wants to win and so do I! With every last bit of energy in my body I drag the paddle blades through the water. We are more than a minute into the race. This is the critical point. I saw many “die” at exactly this stage in the race- including myself. But we are well prepared and practiced right this during our training-pulling through when you believe you have given all already. This is where mental strength is needed. The one that can overcome this “dead point” is made to be a champion.

It works! With every stroke we catch up a little bit on the leading Hungarians. “Unbelievable”, I think to myself. Our boat is still running smoothly. The first red buoy flies by, this means only 100 more meters to the finish line. I put all pressure on the paddle blades. My energy starts to fade. On the one hand I wish the finish line were already here but then again I hope it is still far away with our competitors still having the lead. But with every stroke we get a little bit closer. My arms feel like iron bars and my legs start hurting.

We are nearly head to head with the Hungarian ladies now. About 20 more meters to the finish line. I start believing that we can still win this race as we are approaching with higher speed. 10 more meters! Finally, we take the lead! Five meter before the finish line I realize: this is our victory. Four more meter, three, two, one more meter… I lift up my arms and we fly across the finish line.


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