Written by Ettore Ivaldi | Translated to English by Tessa Forliti | Thank you to Marie Řihošková
It immediately struck me as odd, but her smile in response to my greeting made me forget this detail which would come back to me later in the day. Autumn had arrived, but people were still paddling on the Troja canal without gloves and still enjoying the gates, waves, eddies and tricks of the water and of course she, Štěpánka Hilgertová, on the threshold of 50, was not going to miss the last rays of sunshine that energise her, just like her light and decisive style of paddling, on a course that has seen her train and compete for almost a lifetime.
Then the evening lights obscured the day and in the warmth of my room overlooking the river I remembered that neglected detail and wondered why for the first time bankside there was no Luboš, her constant companion, with his firm step, trusty video camera and obligatory water bottle in hand. A presence who has shared more than 30 years of her life and who, with extreme simplicity, humility and devotion, has become one of the secrets to her success. Luboš Hilgert is not only a coach, but also a husband and father of her son, who, whether by tradition or for love, is named after him. Today, however, this man, who I’ve known for longer than I can remember, wasn’t there and Štěpánka seemed lost and adrift, but with a new look and light in her face.
So I was calmly confident that everything was as it always was and as it always will be because there are athletes chosen by the gods to experience the emotion of riding the waves and passing through the poles hanging in the sky. Yet Štěpánka Hilgertová’s sporting career could have come to an early end, when she fell pregnant aged barely 18 and on 17 th December 1986 gave birth to Luboš Junior, who would become an integral part of a family that from then on decided slalom was nonetheless a mission to pursue without compromise, with no energy spared. The rest is simply and unequivocally legendary!
The tiny blonde woman from Eastern Europe, who has lived through its great political and historical transformations, has written unforgettable pages in the history of sport, first and foremost in five-ring events. Six Olympic Games and two gold medals: Barcelona 1992 – 12th; Atlanta 1996 – Gold medal; Sydney 2000 – Gold medal; Athens 2004 – 5 th; Beijing 2008 – 9 th; London 2012 – 4 th. She won the World Championship title twice (1999 in La Seu d’Urgell and 2003 in Augsburg). Then followed five World Championship team titles (’03 / ’05 / ’10 / ’13 / ’15) with 7 different teammates: Irena Pavelková, Vanda Semeradova, Marcela Sadilová, Marie Řihošková, Kateřina Kudějová and Veronika Vojtová.
The 2015 London event saw her on the highest step of the podium with two girls who could easily have been her daughters. In fact, Kateřina Kudějová was born in 1990 when Štěpánka took bronze in the World Cup final, while in 1992, Veronika Vojtova’s year of birth, she won the overall World Cup title shortly after competing in her first Olympics. Following this umpteenth gold, only two months later she became a grandmother, with the birth on 10 th November of Anežka, a beautiful baby girl who will surely hold high the Hilgert name in the footsteps of Luboš, Ivan, herself, her son and her niece Amálie. Among her other World Championship medals, five silvers and two bronzes, and in the World Cup series, two overall titles, five second places and five bronzes. On top of all these triumphs are seven gold, five silvers and three bronze medals at the European Championships. Not to mention one more “first” when she and her two team mates Marie Řihošková (13 years younger) and Irena Pavelková (seven years younger ) were all three at the podium on European Championships in Krakow 2008 in individual race. Guess who was first?
The greatness of “World Slalom’s Lady of the Gates” does not derive just from her countless Olympic, World and European medals. Her true and enduring magnificence comes from the simplicity with which she has bestrode, lit up and won the dozens and dozens of races in which she has tirelessly competed. Seeing her on the Noce River this year taking part in a level-four international competition, I was impressed by how, together with her husband-coach, she prepared for it as if it were the finals of the World Championship. Then there was a 2010 that by itself would surely be enough to consecrate her in Olympus, after both she and her son won medals at the World Cup in her beloved home city: third place for her in K1 Women and second for Luboš Junior in K1 Men. There is no sport in the world, there is no parent and there is no child who can boast such a magical and unique record.
From my window the river had now been swallowed by the night while the bridge over it was still visible and majestic. Immediately the oddity that had caught my notice in the afternoon vanished and I understood that a new adventure out of the water was about to begin for Štěpánka Hilgertová, without her kayak, without her reference bankside, without slalom gates. The twilight, symbol of that flow of light that ferries us to the other bank, represents this change, this metamorphosis, that a goddess is about to accomplish.
I’m sure, however, that Štěpánka Hilgertová’s future will be as radiant as her past has been full of satisfaction, awards, and joy because she’ll know how to face it with that boldness, determination and professionalism that have allowed her to become a watersports living legend. She will be event and sport actions manager in Czech national bank (many very interesting and influencing people should meet together on events which she will organize), so there is probably no better place in this land to have such a great advertisement for canoe slalom. Good luck, starts on 1st November. And of course, her body needs to move, she needs the endorfins to be pulsing in her veins. And she still wants to have fun on races if her new job would allow her.
So, I just wonder what will happen after Czech national team trials 2018, if Stěpánka make the team again for 31st time, but this time probably first time as an amateur! We, however, will continue to tell our athletes, children and grandchildren about the heroic feats of those who have made canoe slalom great … with all that remains to say: thank you splendid Štěpánka for the magical moments you’ve given all of us who truly love this sport.