The South African Swimming Sensation Who Made Every Lap Count

Published 1 year ago
The Olympic Games-Tokyo 2020

Tatjana Schoenmaker, South Africa’s star swimmer at the Tokyo Olympics who won record-breaking gold in the 200m breaststroke, is constantly challenging herself for the next milestone, she says in an exclusive interview with FORBES AFRICA.

By Nick Said

TATJANA Schoenmaker dreamed of a career in netball and was at first resistant to professional swimming, but after winning Olympic Gold in the 200m breaststroke in a world record time, has proven the old adage that you should always listen to your parents.

Schoenmaker was one of Africa’s stars at the Tokyo Olympics last year as she swept to gold in a record time of 2:18.95, having also claimed silver in the 100m breaststroke as she came within a milli-second of a remarkable double.

It has cemented the 24-year-old’s place among South Africa’s swimming greats, but if her teenage self had her own way, Schoenmaker would not have been in Tokyo to make her mark in history.

“I did many other sports in primary school. I liked hockey, netball and athletics, so at that age I think the push for swimming came from my parents’ side. They saw I had talent,” she tells FORBES AFRICA.

“I was actually against it in the beginning, I was never for it. But when I moved to Tuks Sport High School, and more of my time went into swimming, I started improving. That’s when I started to realize that I’m good at it.

“It was certainly not a passion for me, definitely not. I loved netball and my mind was so set on the fact I wanted to play that sport and I didn’t like swimming.

“But as a 14-year-old, you don’t really know what is best for you. That is why the support of my parents was vital. They believed I had talent and Rocco [coach Rocco Meiring] also believed I could do well.

“I had to trust their judgement, even though I argued against it a lot. I thought I knew everything! So that support from my family to push me… they knew once I realized [my talent], it would go well.”

Realizing that talent took many, many hours in the pool, dedication and, in the end, an iron will to succeed. Many others have had similar talent, but not the drive that Schoenmaker has shown once she decided to make a go of swimming.

“I am so grateful to them for pushing me out of my comfort zone and what I thought was best for myself,” she says.

“It is hard, the amount of hours makes it very difficult. A lot of young swimmers show amazing potential early on but then fade because the work you need to put in is grueling.

“I am very passionate now about encouraging those young swimmers and telling them they have to push through, because it gets so tough.”

She admits she was fortunate to attend a school where sport is heavily blended with academics to help athletes reach their potential.

“We were able to start school later in the morning to accommodate our swimming. The school would work out how we could get our marks with the time that we had in class. I was very lucky to be part that.

“I felt like I could strike the balance and manage both, it wasn’t that I felt I was under pressure with my schoolwork.”

As for her lightbulb moment when she realized she could be an Olympian, it shows the importance of role models in sport in terms of allowing children to dream.

“It was in 2012, when I joined the school. That was the year of the London Olympics and I remember watching it in the hostel.

“Chad [Le Clos] beating Michael Phelps was incredible. One, he was a South African, and two, I was doing the same amount of training then as a professional like Chad at the school.

“I went from three times a week to 10 or 11 sessions a week, so I thought, ‘my life has become swimming, so I can do this also’.”

Schoenmaker says she loves routine and even today trains in a similar fashion to how she did back then. “My training always stays consistent, the type of training changes a little bit, but I like consistency and my programs are basically a lot of the same things.

“It is about eight sessions of swimming and then two or three sessions of gym [a week]. We have double-swim on a Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and single swim with gym on a Tuesday and a Thursday, and then a single swim on a Saturday. Sunday is completely off.” She admits too, that like many other athletes, the extra year of training afforded by the postponement of the Tokyo Games due to the Covid-19 pandemic actually helped her medal chances.

“We had six months to go ahead of the Games in 2020. It was the January [2020], before the Covid-19 lockdowns started. I was excited, but ‘scared’ nervous. I thought to myself, ‘if only I had one more year to just really get prepared’.

“And then of course, it happened when the Games were postponed. So the second time round when it came to six months to go [in January 2021], now it was genuine excitement. It worked in my favor, I got that extra year.

“We lost a lot of training due to Covid-19, but because there were so few competitions after the lockdowns, we were able to put in some really intense training and catch up those weeks. It worked out perfectly for me.”

Many athletes speak of a post-Games depression, especially those that achieve their goals of winning gold. After years, and sometimes decades, building up to that moment, they can be left with an empty feeling of ‘what now?’.

That is not a problem for Schoenmaker.

“I have watched the movie with Michael Phelps about post-Games depression [The Weight of Gold]. It is the highest achievement you could ever get – a gold medal and a world record.

“But for me, it is not ‘what now?’. It is ‘when next?’. I want to race again and I want to try and improve myself. There is so much space to grow.

“Whether I swim personal bests, or whether I grow personally or spiritually… I have changed so much when I look back at who I was three years ago at my first major competition. Winning at the Commonwealth Games [in 2018] – the person I was then and who I am now is totally different.

“It is amazing for me that it all still feels like a dream, it doesn’t seem real, and I am so excited to challenge myself in the next galas. What can I do next to better myself in any way, not just my swimming but as a person?”

As for what is next, 2022 will be a big year for the South African with both the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England, and the World Championships in Fukuoka, which will be a return to Japan.

“I have the short-course World Championships [in Abu Dhabi] at the end of this year. That is a nice challenge because you have a lot more turns and my turns are probably my weakest part.

“Then this year we have the Commonwealth Games and World Championships, we never usually have those two in the same season. But I am very excited for both,” she says.