120 Years, 120 Stories (Part 46): Birgit Fischer, the youngest and the oldest winner


Olympics have had always been about three things – victory, domination and longevity – forming a pyramid with the first the bottom and the last the top. In today’s story we bring you the story of German kayaker Birgit Fischer who is certainly an apt example of that pyramid top.

In an earlier edition we discussed about the Hungarian fencer Aladár Gerevich winning seven gold medals in an Olympic career spanning six Games and 28 years. In a similar story decades later, this German lady too had a difference of 24 years between the first and the last gold of hers. And more remarkably, she came out of retirement twice in course of her Olympic career to make a lasting legacy in the pages of Olympic history.

Considered as the greatest female canoeist of all-time, Birgit Fischer was born in East Germany in the year 1962. Her father was a good canoeist himself and soon she joined her elder brother Frank – who later became world champion three times – at the Stahl Brandenburg club in the locality. Miss Fischer was just 18 and placed at the army when she participated at the Moscow Games in 1980. In the individual event of 500 metres, Fischer won gold – the youngest canoeist ever to do so.

With the Eastern Bloc boycotting the Los Angeles Games, we could only see the German eight years hence at Seoul – in between she married canoeist Jörg Schmidt and also became a mother – where she came second-best in the individual event losing narrowly to Bulgarian Vanja Gesheva but went on to win two golds in Doubles and Fours respectively. Her husband too came up with a silver in the 1 km individual sprint.

Following her Seoul success, she took a break from the sports this time giving birth to her second child, daughter Ulla, before making her first comeback at Barcelona in 1992. With the fall of the German wall, she was promoted to the rank of a major in the army and for the first time she represented an unified Germany at the Olympics. At 30, she won the individual title for the second time in her career and after a span of 12 years. She also won the silver in the fours at the Spanish city.

At Atlanta next time, it was for the very first time she failed to win a medal in an Olympic event that she participated. She came fourth in the individual event, but somehow kept the medal juggernaut going with a gold in the fours and a silver in the doubles. At Sydney 2000, she won the double of gold in Doubles and Fours and at that point it looked as if she had played her swansong.

But it was not yet over for the 42-year old veteran – already a winner of 7 golds and 3 silvers – till she decided to give another shot at Athens in 2004. The motivation behind making the second comeback of her career was born when she sat on the kayak a year earlier for a television documentary. It was precisely then Fischer – who won 28 golds at the Canoe World Championships in her almost two and a half decade career – wondered if she really could make another Olympics or more importantly take part in competitive sports again.

Like the fencer Gerevich who defied age to participate in the Rome Olympics in 1960 at a past-prime age of 50, the German sportswoman of the year 2004 too was doubted by many – including national team coach, Josef Capousek – if she really could contribute to the team’s fortune. As was the case with Gerevich, Fischer too was participating in a team event where a little haziness from her was surely going to hurt her team’s chances. In the German team, only Katrin Wagner (junior to Fischer by 15 years) retained her place in the four-member team from the last Games. Carolin Leonhardt, another member of her team, was just 2 years older to her son Ole.

On the auspicious morning of 27th August, the German kayakers had a poor start and were languishing last in a field which was led by their arch-rivals and the favourite Hungary. However, the German ladies made a great recovery as the other paddlers exhausted themselves keeping themselves in the fray at just 0.3 seconds behind the leaders Hungary mid-way into the race. And then at the crunch moments towards the finishing line, it was the test of perseverance and who else than the expert Fischer was game for the job! When both the Hungarian and the German canoeists looked worn out to even properly take care of the sculls, the 42-year old had enough of fuel in her cylinder to move the paddle high enough with her tired arms to keep the momentum going. And it bore fruits with the German team winning their third consecutive Olympic gold – beating the Hungarian paddlers by two-tenth of a second – in the particular event and Fischer her 8th career yellow metal.

With the win, the German became the oldest canoeist to win an Olympic gold thus complementing . A day later she would partner Leonhardt to another silver in the doubles. By the time the party got over at Athens, she had already pocketed 12 medals in 8 golds and 4 silvers in her Olympic career. At present she stands seventh in the list of all-time gold medal winners at the Games and as a female athlete she comes only behind the Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina. She is the only canoeist to win an event 4 times – the 500 m fours.

Fischer is another example that walked the talk – “age after all is just a number”.