Olympic winner optimistic about SA swimming

Swimming star Penny Heyns is excited about emerging young talent.

Swimming star Penny Heyns is excited about emerging young talent.

Published Feb 4, 2024


Durban — South Africa’s retired swimming star, Penny Heyns, says the future of swimming in the country looks promising.

Heyns, 49, an international swimmer born in eManzimtoti and now living in Pretoria, became the only woman in Olympic history to scoop both the 100m and 200m breaststroke events, in Atlanta in 1996 and bronze in Sydney in 2000, and broke 14 individual world records during her career.

She also broke world records in all three possible distances: the 50m, 100m and 200m.

In 2006, she became the inaugural inductee into the South African Sports Hall of Fame, and in May 2007 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US. In March 2012, she became the first non-black and field female athlete to be inducted into the Africa Sports Hall of Fame.

Speaking to the Independent on Saturday this week, Heyns said South African swimming was filled with young talent and up-and-coming superstars.

“I think we can expect that going into the Olympics there will be a number of our athletes swimming in the finals and on the podium. I think our swimmers are doing well.”

Asked whether she thought swimming had become more inclusive, Heyns said: “I think that at an age group swimming level, there is definitely a large mix in terms of racial demographics. I do a lot of private coaching and I would say at least half of my clients are people of colour, I think.

“As we go on to the older age group, the tendency in general with female swimmers, regardless of race, is that it takes a lot to keep them swimming, especially when they go into puberty. I see the numbers dwindling as they get older.”

She said public facilities were a challenge because of poor maintenance.

Since her retirement in 2001, Heyns has become a businesswoman, guest television presenter, coach and inspirational speaker. She was involved with the International Federation for Swimming until 2022, and was with the anti-doping agency until 2023.

Heyns said she was currently in a good space, emotionally and spiritually, and was motivated with a sense of purpose. She added that her sport and post-sport life were directed by her faith.

She started swimming at the age of 7 and became serious about it at 12.

“I grew up along the coast so I learnt how to swim at a very young age. I did all sorts of sports but it was obvious that I was a good swimmer, and specifically in breaststroke I had great talent.

“I believe that our talents are God-given and one day I would have to stand before the Lord and answer for the talent that I was given. I wanted to answer and say that I did my best with my talent, so that is what really got me into swimming,” she said.

Heyns urged young swimmers to set goals that were challenging but realistic, and “run their own race”.

Independent on Saturday