Birgit Fischer: The youngest and the oldest kayaking champion

To celebrate International Women’s Day (8 March), Tokyo 2020 will use the month of March to shine a spotlight on female athletes - past and present - who have changed the face of sport and society as a whole. Today, we bring you the story of the only female Olympian to have won eight gold medals in kayaking - over a 24-year span. 

Picture by Bongarts

The background

Birgit Fischer was born on 15 February 1962 in the East German town Brandenburg an der Havel. She first got into kayaking at the age of six when she joined her older brother Frank – who later won nine world championship medals including three gold – at the local canoe club BSG Stahl Brandenburg. Her father Karl-Heinz Fischer was her first coach. And from 1978, Fischer’s domination in the sport began.

At Moscow 1980, her first Olympics, Fischer became the youngest ever paddler to win an Olympic gold medal at age of 18, in the K1 500m event. After her Olympic debut, she swept all three 500m competitions (K1, K2, K4) in three consecutive World Championships (1981, 1982, 1983). At Los Angeles 1984, she was unable to defend her Olympic crown due to the boycott of the Eastern Bloc countries.

Fischer returned to the spotlight at Seoul 1988. And whilst she missed out on earning a gold medal in the singles final by 0.12 seconds, she won gold in the K2 event the same day and another gold in K4 the next day. But following her Seoul 1988 success, Fischer decided to retire from the sport after the birth of her second child, daughter Ulla. When she retired, she had a total of three gold and one silver medals from her Olympics career.

But Fischer came back in time for the next Games, Barcelona 1992. This time representing Germany, she reclaimed her singles title in K1 500m and added a silver in the fours. At Atlanta 1996, she recorded another gold in K4 and silver in K2.

At Sydney 2000, she received two more gold medals in K2 and K4, before deciding to retire for the second time. And this time, it looked like her glorious career had finally come to an end.

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Picture by Bongarts

The Finals

Fischer was enjoying her life as a retired Olympian. Famous for her extraordinary career, she was respected as a hero in Germany and appeared on magazine covers and TV, while a film company wanted to make a documentary about her life.

For the documentary, a film crew came to her house and asked her to get into a kayak to film some footage. And once in the kayak and gliding on the water - her first time after retirement - Fisher was unable to stop her competitive blood pumping and decided to try the sport one last time.

“I wanted to see if I could be really fast at 42. I wanted to challenge myself again," Fischer told Olympic.org.

After having a three-year break and with Athens 2004 just nine months away, Fischer managed to join the German kayak team K4 squad.

At Athens 2004, the dominant force in women’s kayak was Hungary with four successive K4 World Championship titles (1999, 2001, 2002, 2003). But despite her hiatus in sport and being 23 years older than her partner in K2, Carolin Leonhardt, Fischer was as confident as ever.

"Two gold medals in the team boats, that would be a dream," she said.

On 23 and 24 August, Fischer and her teams all directly qualified for the final having placed first in the heat. And in K4, Germany beat arch-rival Hungary in the same heat.

In the final, the Hungarians led from the start while the Germans were last in the nine-team field. However, during the 500m sprint, the Germans closed the gap and were only 0.3 seconds behind the leaders Hungary at the 250m mark. And in the last part of the race, while both teams battled to the finish, Germany finally prevailed by a margin of 0.2 seconds.

It was the eighth career Olympic gold medal for Fischer.

Having become the youngest kayak gold medallist at Moscow 1980, she had now, 24 years later, become the oldest kayaker ever to win Olympic gold.

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Picture by 2004 Getty Images

The outcome

A day after the K4 final, Fischer won another Olympic medal, silver in K2 500m event. The victory meant she had won a total of 12 medals – 8 gold and 4 silvers – in an Olympic career spanning from 1980 to 2004. In the same year, 2004, she was voted German Sportswoman of the year and in 2008, inducted to German Sports Hall of Fame.

Athens 2004 was her sixth and last Olympic Games. After that, she focussed on her company, ‘KanuFisch’, promoting canoe/kayak as an active lifestyle.

But as one of the greatest athletes of all-time, she left some advice for future Olympians in her 2019 interview with Olympic.org:

“Never forget your life outside of paddling, Do whatever you feel like doing. Do not just listen to the coach but always listen to yourself. Think about your training. Love yourself and take good care of yourself.”

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