BY BRIAN PINELLI
Barcelona is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its 1992 Summer Olympics and while Michael Jordan and all members of the superstar-laden "Dream Team" have long since retired their basketball shoes, Czech slalom kayaker Štěpánka Hilgertová is still paddling with a fury.
Hilgertová, 49, then 24, made her Olympic debut navigating the whitewater of La Seu d’Urgell as Barcelona was the first of six Olympic Games that she competed in.
"I was convinced that they were my first and last Games, the first and last chance," Hilgertová said. "I did not know if slalom would be at the next Olympics or if I was still going to paddle."
The Czech kayaker from Prague proceeded to win K-1 gold medals in Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000 - the highlights of an illustrious career that also included 14 world championship medals and two overall World Cup titles.
Hilgertová has defied odds and critics, withstanding the test of time. Miraculous as this streak seems, she is still competing on the ICF World Cup tour and stands as the Czech Republic's first alternate for the upcoming world championships in Pau, France, in late September.
"She has persevered through a lot to get to this point," said Joe Jacobi, who also competed at his first Olympics in Barcelona, winning C-2 gold for the U.S. "There are many people inside of her own country that felt she should’ve stepped aside decades ago.
"I attribute Stepanka’s longevity to her love for the process. She has found a way to show up every day and learn new things – new ideas, new concepts and new innovations."
Jacobi, who first met Stepanka at a race in Wausau, Wisconsin in 1988, adds that the kayak slalom legend exudes a "quiet confidence" and draws very little attention to herself.
"Her style and character is her body of work, which is anything but hanging onto the past," he said.
Vradilec "Vavra" Hradilec, the London 2012 K-1 silver medalist, says Hilgertová has been an inspiration to all paddlers in the central European country.
"Stepanka means so much to us," Hradilec said. "When you say canoe slalom in the Czech Republic, most people will know her straight away. She is a legend in the entire sport family."
Hradilec says he has learned tremendously from observing her smooth and efficient technique.
"Simply, her style is brilliant - she knows how to use water flow effectively."
Hilgertova offers insight into what she believes are the five primary factors for her longevity in the sport, athletic accomplishments and injury avoidance.
First off, she believes it is critical for young athletes to have a broad, general sport training as a solid foundation, before specializing, noting that she grew up skiing and doing gymnastics.
Secondly, Hilgertova suggests to compliment a training regiment with supplemental physical activities. She now practices yoga daily and often swims laps in the pool when not paddling slalom gates.
Her third tip - especially for younger athletes - is to develop additional interests outside of competitive sport.
"It helps to stay mentally fresh," Hilgertova said, noting that dancing has become an enjoyable hobby of hers.
Hilgertova advises to avoid the common mistake of overtraining.
"Train to 100 percent, not more - it means listen to your body," she said.
Lastly, Hilgertova stresses the importance that strong family support has meant to her sustaining a lengthy and prosperous kayaking career.
Stepanka's husband Lubos is her coach and son Lubos, 31, and niece Amálie, 19, are also competitive kayakers. Her brother and sister-in-law own and operate a sporting equipment company HIKO Sport, which she serves as an ambassador of.
Amálie, who turns 20 on September 4, is one of the Czech Republic's rising stars and is qualified to compete at her first world championships next month in France.
The skilled young Czech kayaker-who attained a bronze medal at the 2014 Youth Olympic Games in China and is also a World Junior Champion-said her Aunt never ceases to amaze her.
"She's really focused - you can feel it from how she acts, how she paddles and how she speaks," Amálie said of Štěpánka. "It's really hard to focus sometimes in these times and this is what I want to learn from her the most."
"She is world-class, on and off the water," Jacobi adds. "Our sport is so fortunate to have her present and on the start line today."