Fischer still in golden form after 24 years

It was a performance to make Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent look like novices. Twenty-four years after winning her first Olympic title, Birgit Fischer and her four-woman kayak crew raced to victory on Lake Schinias here yesterday to give the 42-year-old German the eighth gold medal of one of the most remarkable careers in the history of women's Olympic sport.

It was a performance to make Steve Redgrave and Matthew Pinsent look like novices. Twenty-four years after winning her first Olympic title, Birgit Fischer and her four-woman kayak crew raced to victory on Lake Schinias here yesterday to give the 42-year-old German the eighth gold medal of one of the most remarkable careers in the history of women's Olympic sport.

When Fischer won her seventh gold four years ago, she became the first woman to win Olympic titles 20 years apart, having announced her arrival as the youngest ever female canoeing champion with victory as an 18-year-old at the Moscow Games in 1980. "No more competition," she had said in Redgrave style as she climbed out of the canoe in Sydney. "Sometimes you just have to finish and it's great to finish on a high."

The lure of competition, however, brought Fischer out of retirement last year and yesterday she proved she had lost none of her hunger, power and racing nous. Trailing for most of the race behind the favourites, Hungary, Fischer launched her crew on a late charge for the line and they won by less than two tenths of a second.

What is more, the divorced mother of two teenage children is expected to win her ninth gold in today's kayak doubles 500m final, with a partner who was born four years after she won her first Olympic title. When she was asked after yesterday's race if she would compete in Beijing in four years' time, she smiled and said: "Who knows?"

If she wins today, Fischer will equal the summer games records of the Russian gymnast, Larysa Latynina, who won nine golds in the 1950s and 1960s, and three men's champions, the athletes Paavo Nurmi and Carl Lewis and the swimmer Mark Spitz. It would be her 12th medal in total, putting her second behind Latynina's 18 in the all-time list.

Fischer has also won 27 world championship titles and you wonder what she might have achieved had East Germany not boycotted the 1984 games, or if she had not retired four times. She quit in 1986 to have her first child, in 1989 for three years while she had a second, in 1993 for a few months and again four years ago.

To remind her that she values motherhood above competition, Fischer always carries with her pictures of her children, Ole and Ulla. "They're almost grown up now," she said. "I think they're happy when I'm away because I'm strict with them sometimes and give them a lot of tasks around the house."

The German crews were selected after Olympic trials earlier this year and yesterday's final was only the third time the four-woman team had raced together. Fischer decided to come out of retirement last year after a television station asked her to get back in a canoe to film a promotional video.

"It felt so good. I really got the taste of it again," she said. "I would compare it with an alcoholic who was sober for three years, then took a sip and was hooked again."

Fischer still lives in Brandenburg, where she was born, and has a remarkably low profile in Germany considering her achievements. After an obligatory press conference yesterday, she hurried out of a back entrance and left her colleagues to pay tribute.

Carolin Leonhardt, 20, who is also Fischer's partner in today's two-woman event, said: "This is Birgit's sixth Olympics and so she brings great experience into the boat. She always knows what to do and gives me a real feeling of security."

Maike Nollen, 27, said: "I remember when I was 14 or 15 our coach telling us to come and watch television and see her race. It was always great to watch her because she's a complete one-off.

"It's amazing how well we all get on. You never think that she's 42 years old. We've had a lot of fun. She jokes a lot, though when it's time to get serious in training she's not afraid to say so. She's a true professional.

"She amazes everyone in the team. She has so much energy. She gets up at five in the morning and never seems tired. I don't know how she does it. She worked really hard to get back into shape after her retirement. She jokes about carrying on until the next Olympics, but we will see. If she thinks she is fit and strong maybe she will compete again."

Elsewhere, it was a disappointing day for Britain's canoeists. Tim Brabants, who won a bronze in Sydney, finished fifth in the single kayak 1,000m final, while Ian Wynne and Paul Darby-Dowman were seventh in the pairs 1,000m final. Wynne, however, has another chance today. He is one of the favourites to win the single kayak 500m race.

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