Tatjana Schoenmaker: From the depths of despair to Olympic champion
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CAPE TOWN - She is now a double Olympic medallist, but did you know that Tatjana Schoenmaker was close to taking part in the 2016 Rio Olympics?
The then 19-year-old, based at the Tuks Sport club in Pretoria, was contesting the 200m breaststroke at the South African trials. She had already posted a qualifying time beforehand, but had to do so once more at the trials to secure her passage to Brazil.
She fell short by the smallest of margins, one-hundredth of a second (0.01 seconds), and her Olympic dream was over… for the moment.
Schoenmaker had contemplated getting out of the swimming pool for good, which would’ve been totally understandable considering the situation. She was studying financial science at the University of Pretoria, and could pursue a comfortable corporate job after that – no need for those 5am training sessions.
It also meant that South Africa wouldn’t have female swimmers at the Rio Olympics
But she soon met up with renowned Tuks Sport coach Rocco Meiring, and he managed to convince her to give herself another chance and aim for Tokyo 2020. And the rest is history…
A 100m-200m breaststroke double followed at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Australia, and she clinched the 200m silver medal at the 2019 world championships in Gwangju, South Korea.
“It was a tough setback. I really struggled to enjoy swimming after that. The excitement was so real, and we were getting so happy about me going, and then finding out I didn’t make it,” Schoenmaker told the Olympics website about missing out in 2016.
“But now I feel like I’m very happy, compared to who I was as a person and where I was in life. So, no, I’m very grateful that I didn’t go. It sounds weird. I am very happy, and I can say it would probably be as a motivation that it didn’t work out, and that was meant to be like that.
“I’m in such a much better place now, and I feel like I’m much more ready this time. I wouldn’t have been where I am today if I did maybe go to the Olympics. I wouldn’t be where I am with my times and stuff right now.”
Then, Covid-19 happened. Most athletes would have felt frustrated by the Games being postponed by a year, but not the unflustered Schoenmaker.
In fact, she felt that it was a blessing in disguise, as it allowed her to have a “proper break” that she normally wouldn’t have during a season.
In an interview with Independent Media before the SA championships in April, Schoenmaker said her preparations for the Tokyo Olympics were going well.
“I think we were more motivated and we were able to train over the festive season and everything. By the time you get to December, normally you are so tired, and you just want to go home and take the week off between Christmas and New Year’s,” she said.
“But ja, we trained straight through for the first time, so it was amazing. I think everyone at the pool, the environment at the pool is good. Everyone’s motivated and pumped. So, I definitely think we’re on the right track.”
She went on to set new national and African records in the 50m (30.42 seconds), 100m (1:05.74) and 200m (2:20.17) at the SA championships, but she was still adamant that the 100m event wasn’t her main focus. Schoenmaker said that the “100 pays for the 200”, so it was more about getting some racing in than any medal ambitions in the 100m.
I'm a little late on this, but these Olympic reactions never get old.— Joe Pompliano (@JoePompliano) July 30, 2021
Here's South Africa's Tatjana Schoenmaker after winning a gold medal & realizing she broke the world record in the women's 200m breaststroke.
Perhaps still stung by what happened in the 2016 qualification process, she didn’t want to get too excited about pushing for the 200m gold in Tokyo.
Asked what it would take to secure a medal, she said: “If I can make a final, it would be amazing. I think just to keep your head in it, and not to create too much pressure on yourself by people’s expectations. Ja, I think I’m just there to do my best, give my best. If I swim a PB there, that’s amazing.
“I think not a lot of people or some people can say they actually went to the Olympics and swam their best times and stuff. If I get to the final… They say if you have a lane, you have a chance. I mean, Wayde van Niekerk came from lane eight! So, anything is possible, but ja, at the end, I’m just there to improve on my own times.”
Well, as we now know, she did improve her times – an Olympic record and silver medal in the 100m breaststroke, and a world record and gold in the 200m.
Schoenmaker became the first woman to break through the 2:19 barrier in the 200m, with her world mark of 2:18.95.
She says that her achievements haven’t “sunk in” yet upon arrival at the OR Tambo International Airport earlier this week.
But when looking back at her journey to glory, from the depths of despair of missing out on Rio 2016, to double medallist, world and Olympic records at Tokyo 2020 (in 2021), all of that will hit home in the months to come.
As we celebrate Women’s Day on Monday and Women’s Month, let’s cheer for Tatjana Schoenmaker – a real inspiration and role model for the ladies of Mzansi.