Cape Town – When Lara van Niekerk touched the wall at the end of the 100m breaststroke final at the Commonwealth Games on Tuesday night, the first thing she did was to look for Tatjana Schoenmaker.
“I really thought it would come down to a touch, so I’m quite surprised touching the wall. I looked and thought, ‘Where’s Tatjana?’ I thought it would come down to the last touch and that is what I was preparing myself for,” the 19-year-old Van Niekerk said as she held off the defending champion to clinch the gold medal at the Sandwell Aquatic Centre in Birmingham.
The 25-year-old Schoenmaker made the better start, but in the second 25 metres, Van Niekerk turned up the heat and scorched into a lead of nearly seven-tenths of a second at the turn.
She didn’t let up in the final 50 metres either, despite the best intentions of Schoenmaker, who had successfully defended her 200m breaststroke crown a few days ago.
Van Niekerk – who secured the 50m breaststroke title as well – kept pushing hard until the end and won in a time of 1:05.47, followed by Schoenmaker in 1:06.68 – a gap of 1.21 seconds.
Chelsea Hodges of Australia finished third in 1:07.05, with a third South African, Kaylene Corbett, ending seventh in 1:07.62.
“I’m speechless. I don’t think this will ever sink in. I’m just so happy. After the Worlds in June, which wasn’t the best gala I’ve ever had, coming back and achieving this, it means a lot,” Van Niekerk said.
“She (Schoenmaker) has always been a very big role model over the years. I grew up always around her, and seeing how she missed out on the Olympic qualifier in 2016, and then coming back and being a world record-holder and a gold medallist has really inspired me a lot, and showed me that I can one day hopefully achieve that as well.”
Schoenmaker explained that she has been battling with her confidence ahead of the Commonwealth Games, but was grateful to be on the podium.
“It has been very tough. Mentally, this whole Games have been so in my head. You would believe that, coming from the Olympics, you would have so much confidence and belief in yourself. This is one of the galas I was so challenged in – I didn’t believe in myself. I struggled with that every day. But it is a mental game, and that’s been the challenging part,” the 200m breaststroke world record-holder said.
“For me to not have the times that I want, but still to walk away with the blessing of a silver medal … I’m very happy. I came just to give my best and that was my best for today. It was obviously not my best time, but I couldn’t have given anything more.
“She (Van Niekerk) just smashed it! It’s weird being the senior because for years I have been one of the juniors. Seeing them take home the medals here has been a privilege to share those moments with them and stand there with them.
“Hopefully, there’s still a lot more to come … I don’t know for how long I will be on the podium! But we’re here to represent South Africa and we want South Africa to be at the top, so it doesn’t matter who it is. We just want to keep our country’s name high.”