More than two decades after Penny Heyns won a historic double at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, another South African breaststroke specialist looks set to shine at the games, with Tatjana Schoenmaker aiming for gold in the 100m and 200m breaststroke races in Tokyo.
The 23-year-old swimming sensation recently made waves at the SA Swimming Championships in Gqeberha, posting three national and African records, including the second-fastest time globally of 1:05.74 in the 100m breaststroke, which is just 0.09 seconds slower than current 100m breaststroke Olympic champion and world record holder, Lilly King.
The Tuks athlete boasts Africa’s fastest 200m time after clocking 2:20.17 in the Newton Park pool. It was also the fastest global time since 2017 and the seventh-fastest ever.
Speaking after her outstanding performances, Schoenmaker said, “I am still pinching myself that I have swum such great times over the past week. I’ve been emotional because it’s amazing how things can change in a few years.”
In 2016, Schoenmaker missed out on competing at the Rio Olympics but has been putting in hard yards to better her times over the years.
“I was devastated when I missed out on qualifying for the Rio Olympics in 2016 by a split second but I pulled myself together, put my head down and worked hard with my amazing coach Rocco [Meiring] and the team.
“I focused on bettering my times, stayed disciplined and the work has paid off. I am so excited! I can’t believe I am going to my first Olympics. We have three months now to fine tune things, but I can’t wait to get to Tokyo.”
Meiring, who has been on a mission to unlock the young swimmer’s full potential, previously spoke highly of Schoenmaker, saying, “What Tatjana has done for women’s swimming in South Africa is invaluable.
“She is an amazing role model. When we’re training, Tatjana is just another person in our squad, so I think what I’ve learned most from her is that you can be super successful and also stay humble about it.”
The 2019 Momentum gsport Awards Ministerial Awards recipient has also received backing from Olympic double gold medallist Heyns, who believes Schoenmaker will earn a podium position if she continues with her fine form.
“I am impressed by Tatjana’s recent performances. I think she has a realistic chance to medal at the Games. The only unanswered question is what the colour of the medal might be. To me, it is exciting that she is also a breaststroker,” Heyns said in a post shared on the Tuks Sport website.
“Tatjana is definitely at this point in her mind focusing on the 200m. And rightfully so. What is impressive right now is that she can do 50m as fast as she does. It really bodes well for the 100m. I hope she spoils the ‘American party’ because they seem to think their swimmer (King) will take the gold.”
If the 2019 World Championships 200m breaststroke silver medallist succeeds in Tokyo, she will be the first South African female swimmer to win an Olympic medal since Heyns’ 100m breaststroke bronze medal at the 2000 Sydney Olympics.
Schoenmaker will lead the way for Team South Africa alongside fellow female swimmers, Kaylene Corbett and Emma Chelius, who will compete in the 200m breaststroke and 50m freestyle, respectively.
It will be only the third time since 1996 that two South African female swimmers will compete in the same event at the Olympic Games. In 1996 in Atlanta, Heyns and Julia Russell competed in the 100m and 200m breaststroke events. In 2000, in Sydney, it was Heyns and Sarah Poewe that did so.
This year, Schoenmaker and Corbett will fly the flag for South Africa in the 200m breaststroke.
According to Heyns, the two young stars should take control of what they can: “The key to success when competing at the highest level is to control the controllable. If you start wanting to race someone else, there is always the danger of being distracted. The only thing you can control is what you do in your lane.
“I like the idea of what Tatjana and Kaylene did when they swam the time trials during the SA Invitational Olympic Trials. To be able to swim a qualifying time totally on your own is a mark of readiness. It shows they [have] got the strength and mentality to compete at an Olympic Games,” Heyns said.
Chelius will also feature in the history-making 4x100m relay team, which includes Rebecca Meder, Aimee Canny and Erin Gallagher – who are the first South African quartet to qualify for an Olympic Games in this race.