Six-time Olympian Štěpánka Hilgertová on how to have a long and successful sporting career

Štěpánka Hilgertová is an ageless wonder, having competed near the highest level of her sport for nearly three decades. The Czech Republic kayak legend has withstood the test of time, enjoying a long and illustrious career in her physically demanding sport of canoe slalom. Hilgertová’s highlights include paddling to K1 Olympic gold medals at both the Olympic Games Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.

In total, Hilgertová, now 49, competed at six Olympic Games between 1992 and 2012. Regarding keys to her Olympic success, she says: “I learned gradually how to be optimally focused on my race while enjoying all the other Olympic experiences in my free time.” In addition to her Olympic achievements, Hilgertová also won two overall World Cup titles and attained a record 14 world championship medals in individual and team events. Amazingly, she is still competing at World Cup level.

Here, she offers five tips for athletes about sustaining a long, successful and healthy sporting career…

Have a wide-ranging sporting background as a base

“I believe that it’s important to have general and well-rounded sports training before starting with sports specialisation,” explains Hilgertová. “I began with gymnastics and skiing. I started kayaking at the age of 12, more as a hobby. Professionally, I’ve been paddling since the age of 20. As for becoming an Olympian for the first time, there is no universal advice; it does not exist. I think everyone has to find his or her own way. It’s a great goal to try and make an Olympic team. I would love to see every athlete experience it.”

Incorporate other activities into your training programme

“Add other compensatory activities to your training, for example, swimming or yoga. I have been practising yoga, taking professional lessons for about two years now. I’m also doing it myself for about 30 minutes every morning. It is helping me in many ways – with flexibility, breathing and concentration.”

Find interests outside of sport

“Have other interests besides sport, especially as a junior – studies and spending time with other friends. It will help you stay mentally fresh. I have enjoyed dance classes and meeting friends with interests other than sport. Now, I am enjoying spending time with my one-and-a-half-year-old granddaughter.”

Family support is important

“Our wider family is involved in sports and we really support each other. My husband is my coach, and my son and niece are paddling as well. It is really amazing and unusual to be on the national team with a son or a niece. My brother and sister-in-law are producing sporting equipment and I am the ambassador of the company.”

Train hard and have some luck

“Train to 100% of your capability, not more. This means learning to listen to your body. And, of course, everybody needs some luck to stay at the top for so long!”