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Capetonian pupil sprints to gold in canoeing

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Less than a fortnight after being awarded Western Cape provincial colours for canoeing, 12-year-old Capetonian canoeist Hanna Solomon won a gold medal at the South African Canoe Marathon Championships in Roodeplaat Dam near Pretoria between 14 and 16 June.

This Herzlia pupil claimed gold in the under-14 K1 singles event and third place in the K2 doubles at this prestigious championship. The entry list was packed with world champions, including the world’s most decorated kayak paddler and two 2024 Olympics-bound South African paddlers.

Solomon’s Western Cape provincial colours were bestowed on her during the Western Province Canoe Union annual prize giving on 4 June for her outstanding performance at the South African Sprints Championships last year. She came second in all her races at that tournament.

Solomon says it felt amazing to receive the colours. “I was shocked because my mom told me I wasn’t going to get it. When they called my name, I was very happy.”

“If you get a gold and silver medal at the championships, then you get one point,” Solomon says. “If you get more than three points or more, you can get Western Cape provincial colours.”

At this year’s South African Sprint Championships, which brings together the best canoeists in the country, Solomon bagged a gold medal in the 5 000m sprint for under-14 girls. She collected silvers in most of her other races, and a couple of bronze medals. This was quite an achievement as some of her competitors were 14 years old. There’s an age group for under-12 canoeists, but as Solomon turned 12 last year, she competes in the under-14 age group.

“In canoeing, there’s lots of different disciplines like sprints, marathon, river, surf ski, and polo,” Solomon says. “But I do sprint and marathon.”

Sprints are raced out on a flatwater course of 200m, 500m, 1 000m or 5 000m.

“For a marathon, you have to get out your boat on a jetty, run across the land to the other side with your boat and your paddle in your hand, and then get back in again, and carry on going. It’s normally 14km,” she says.

Solomon trains five or six days a week near Muizenberg. She does a 10km time trial paddle every week, trying to beat her time from the previous week. She does sprints with other people and the Orka Paddles squad.

Solomon’s dad has won two Berg River Canoe Marathons, four-day odysseys of 240km in the Cape winter from Paarl to Velddrif on the West Coast, and is a world champion marathon paddler and ski paddler, so he was an inspiration for her to get into paddling.

“I never wanted to paddle when I was younger,” Solomon says. “In [the COVID-19 pandemic] lockdown, I decided to try it because my friend had a boat. I said, ‘Dad, I want to try paddling today.’ He never pushed me. I liked it.”

She soon got a surf ski as a birthday present, and went on to paddle at Peninsula Canoe Club with a coach named Anders Hart. “I paddled with them and made friends. I had lots of fun,” she says.

Solomon is one of the few under-14 girl canoeists in the Western Cape “but in the other provinces, there are much more. There were 24 from the whole country at the South African Championships. I have lots of younger friends who do it, and I paddle with older people.”

Canoeing is big in the Solomon family. Her mom, Megan, met her dad through canoeing, and her younger sister also paddles.

Canoeing is a popular sport in South Africa, Megan says. “There are loads of people doing rivers and marathons . It’s not an easy sport to do. It’s quite difficult to stabilise in a canoe. When you first start canoeing, you fall into the water a lot. In winter, it’s tricky because you get cold and then people usually give up. I started paddling when I was 30. It took me a long time to stabilise. So, when you see people paddling, they make it look really easy, but it’s actually really hard.”

Solomon likes the “nice” canoeing community. “I just love the sport. I feel happy when I paddle. It’s hard to explain,” she says.

South Africa’s only medal in canoeing at the Olympic Games was the bronze claimed by Bridgitte Hartley in the 2012 London Olympics.

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