Johannesburg - For many South Africans the highlight of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta was Penny Heyns’s success in the pool.
The swimming sensation is world renowned after she became the only woman in the history of the Olympics to win the 100m and 200m breaststroke.
But these days Heyns has ditched her swimming gear for a power suit.
The 37-year-old travels the country giving motivational talks to people ranging from businessmen to the youth. She is also a businesswoman, a corporate performance trainer and a swimming clinician.
Having retired from swimming more than 11 years ago, Heyns has her feet firmly in the boardroom and inspires others to achieve their dreams.
The Springs-born swimmer was SA’s first post-apartheid Olympic gold medallist following SA’s readmission to the Games in 1992.
Along with Australian swimming champion Leisel Jones, Heyns is regarded as one of the greatest breaststroke swimmers of all time.
“Life after swimming was not so simple and protective. Adjusting to it... has taken several years,” admitted Heyns, who briefly relocated to Canada after retirement. She’s been back in South Africa for a few years.
From travelling around the country giving motivational talks, to being a businesswoman, Heyns doesn’t have much time on her hands. In fact, she hardly has time to splash in the pool either.
“I do miss being as fit as I was in my younger competitive days, as well as the solitude that swimming offered. Sometimes I miss the adrenalin rush and the feeling of invincibility that youth and competitive swimming offered. As I grow older I appreciate my swimming career and achievements more than perhaps a few years ago. I think when you are young you tend to take a lot for granted.”
Although it’s been more than 11 years, South Africans haven’t forgotten Heyns. She is still well recognised by the public when she steps out of her home in Pretoria.
“I am a very private person so I try to avoid the attention, but I do still get recognised and with that comes the autograph and photo requests,” she said.
Heyns learnt to swim at the age of two and joined her school’s swimming team at seven. By 12, Heyns was already part of a swimming club.
However, it wasn’t her dream to be a professional swimmer. As a little girl, she dreamt of being a surgeon.
“I never grew up thinking I want to be an Olympic swimmer. I merely swam because I believed I was born with a talent and thus had the responsibility to develop it fully,” she said.
“As a child I did fancy myself as a doctor, specifically a surgeon, but different doors opened which eventually allowed me to develop as a speaker and businesswoman – now I can’t imagine doing anything different.”
Heyns spent most of her youth in Amanzimtoti on the KwaZulu-Natal South Coast.
Growing up, Heyns said she never had any swimming heroes that she looked up to.
“I respected, and tried to emulate, athletes who displayed good sportsmanship, both in victory and defeat.
“Athletes should be admired more for their character and sportsmanship – not their achievements only.”
Aside from her breathtaking performance in Atlanta in 1996, Heyns has had a very memorable swimming career.
She was the youngest member of the SA Olympic team at the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, and a member of the SA squad at the 1994 Commonwealth Games where she took bronze in the 200m breaststroke.
She broke her first world record, the 100m breaststroke, in Durban in March 1996.
But it’s difficult for her to choose a favourite moment in her career.
“Each one of my 14 world record swims were special in their own right because being the absolute best that you can be – on the day, in the moment – is success.”
Heyns admits to having mixed feeling after winning her first gold medal.
“Obviously, I was very relieved and happy to have won the Olympic gold, but the time in which I won was slightly slower than my world record swim from the prelims so in that sense both my coach and I were a little disappointed.”
Despite being out of the sport for quite some time now, Heyns still keeps an eye on SA’s swimmers today and she’s delighted by their performance at the London Olympics.
“I’m so proud of both Chad [Le Clos] and Cameron [Van den Berg]. They’re exceptional young talents and I hope to see both swimmers grow as athletes on the world stage to hopefully repeat as medallists in Rio 2016.
“Our Paralympians once again did us very proud – both with their outstanding individual performances and as team SA. Natalie [Du Toit] was terrific! What a fitting way to end an amazing career.”
Any advice for swimmers? Heyns says young people need to take responsibility for their own swimming improvement.
“Make the extra effort to develop yourself in terms of technique and mental tenacity. Pursue a US scholarship and make use of the opportunity to grow and develop both as an athlete, student and person in the way that only the US collegiate system can offer.
“The US route is not for everyone, but South Africa still cannot offer a winning system with the depth and opportunity to race that the US can.” - The Star