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’South Africa has a gem in Tatjana Schoenmaker’ - Penny Heyns

Tatjana Schoenmaker with legendary South African swimmer Penny Heyns. File image.

Tatjana Schoenmaker with legendary South African swimmer Penny Heyns. File image.

Published Jul 31, 2021


Johannesburg - Penny Heyns distinctly remembers one of the first times she saw swimming sensation Tatjana Schoenmaker in action.

It was many years ago at an African Junior Championship swim meet in Botswana.

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“I saw her while I was doing some commentating for a TV channel. I made some comments that day that she looked really talented. Her parents recently reminded me of this.”

On Friday, the legendary South African swimmer had front row seats to watch Schoenmaker as she smashed a World Record and claimed gold in the 200m breastroke final at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

Schoenmaker, who won silver in the 100m breaststroke earlier in the week, was competing in her eighth race in five days and delivered a near-perfect performance under supreme pressure.

Her world-record time of 2:18.95 left her comfortably ahead of Americans Lilly King and Annie Lazor, who took silver and bronze.

Schoenmaker, coached by renowned swimming coach Rocco Meiring, was 0.97 seconds ahead of King, while Team SA teammate Kaylene Corbett finished fifth.

Heyns, who was poolside, says she was left speechless following the Tuks swimming graduate’s “perfect swim” at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre.

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“I feel like everything's a blur. I want to go back and watch the race over and over. It’s just so amazing how Tatjana kicked into another gear and passed everybody and touched that wall.

“I don't know if I was caught up in her reaction or stunned by the time, but I just got goosebumps and felt so emotional.”

Heyns says she was particularly impressed by Schoenmaker’s composure during the final of the 200m breaststroke.

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“She really has been an awesome role model in the way that she's humbly handled her successes thus far.

Tatjana Schoenmaker earned South Africa’s first gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this week. File image.

“Swimming an Olympic final with that kind of pressure ... not everybody can have the big match temperament to hold it together.”

Schoenmaker herself was modest in her triumph, insisting that she just wanted to reach the final. Speaking to the media yesterday, Schoenmaker said her gold medal win had yet to sink in.

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“It still hasn’t really sunk in! I’m excited to also go back home and celebrate this with my family,” Schoenmaker said after her race..

“I was lucky to have my teammate (Kaylene Corbett) there. We were all like two-two – two Americans, two British, two South Africans. So, it was just amazing. This is my first Olympics, so for me to get a lane into the final … I’ve exceeded – or God has exceeded – all my expectations, I couldn’t have been happier.”

Heyns, who is in Tokyo representing the International Swimming Federation (Fina) as chairperson, admits to have felt “nervous” for Schoenmaker ahead of her debut final at an Olympic Games in the 100m breaststroke final.

“I can't remember how nervous I felt when I walked out to swim all those years back, but I don't recall feeling as nervous as how I now felt on the sidelines. When you are the swimmer and you’ve done the training, you have the control.

“It’s worse for the coach or the spectator. If you really care about the swimmer, you tend to feel a lot more nervous than the one that's racing, and that’s how I felt.”

Heyns watched as Schoenmaker made history by becoming the first female swimmer from South Africa in over 20 years to win an Olympic medal.

“When she won the silver, I genuinely felt emotional. I don’t know why, but I was overcome with emotions. I didn’t feel as emotional with my own swims as I did with Tatjana’s.

“I think it's just that I share in her joy and Tatjana displays really good sportsmanship, and she’s humble and I respect that a lot, so it's easy for me to celebrate her achievements.”

Tatjana Schoenmaker earned South Africa’s first gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games this week. File image.

Despite her not winning gold in the 100m breaststroke final, Heyns says Schoenmaker has proved that she is the fastest swimmer in the world.

“Personally I'm very happy that she beat Lily King. I don't mind the little American (Jacoby) who won the gold. She seems sweet and humble so that's all right.”

By missing out on a gold medal in the 100m breaststroke final, Schoenmaker just missed out on equalling Heyn’s record of winning gold in both the 100 and 200m breaststroke at a single Olympic Games.

Heyns is the only woman in the history of the Olympic Games to have won both the 100m and 200m breaststroke events – at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.

“There was a stage after the Olympic record in the 100m heats that I thought, Tatjana can do the double. I thought if her 100m is that fast then the 200m will definitely be very fast. She dropped a second in the 100m, I expected her to drop even more in the 200m, which would put her at a world record.

“That would have been amazing, that 25 years later the double is being done by another South African. But I guess it just wasn’t meant to be.”

It’s the first time that Heyns has been back at an Olympic Games since she retired 21 years ago.

Despite having her hands full as chairperson of Fina at the Tokyo Games, Heyns has been keeping a close eye on all of South Africa’s swimmers.

“Going into the Olympics, I did feel as if our swimmers stood a chance of winning some medals, particularly with Tatjana. She came in ranked sixth and I expected she would be in the final, and perhaps maybe she could sneak a medal. I certainly didn't see her dropping a whole second the way she did. And in the 200m final, she finished off really strong. She did her best swim exactly when it mattered and not many people can pull that off.

“I'm extremely proud of her and I think South Africa has a gem and we look forward to seeing how she continues to grow and develop, and that she enjoys and celebrates the talent that God has given her.”

Heyns described Schoenmaker as a disciplined and focused swimmer.

“She’s extremely talented, and I would assume she's very disciplined. One of her greatest strengths is her faith and she's got a lot of big match temperament.

“She focuses really well and she doesn't seem to be overwhelmed or shaken by the pressure of the event. One doesn't know what one feels inside, but it seems like she's got it together.”

Heyns says Schoenmaker must have made huge sacrifices to get where she is today.

“I can imagine you don't get to her level and swim as fast as she has if you haven't made huge sacrifices. She may have put regular teenage life and young adult life on the shelf to get on with the training.

“And I know she left home so she could move to Pretoria ... so she made some huge sacrifices to train in the right environment to develop her talent.”

Speaking of South Africa’s other swimmers, Heyns says she has been delighted with their performances.

File picture: Chad le Clos. Photo by: Michael Sohn/AP

She’s also been paying close attention to Chad le Clos.

Le Clos, South Africa’s most decorated Olympian, didn’t manage to win a medal in the 200m butterfly event, finishing fifth overall in the event with a time of 1:54.93. He didn’t qualify for the men's 100m butterfly final event.

Heyns says Le Clos shouldn’t feel too disheartened about his performances in Tokyo.

“I didn't really know what to think of the 200m butterfly. As a swimmer gets older, you usually gravitate towards the shorter distances. It also takes an older swimmer longer to recover. He came out the blocks really fast in the first 100m, but unfortunately he couldn’t bounce back and it caught up with him.

“I know Chad’s going through a difficult time right now, processing the fact that he's not as young as he was and not able to bounce back as he did before, but maybe he needs to change his strategy a bit.”