CAPE TOWN - Tatjana Schoenmaker has already surpassed Penny Heyns’ African records in the 100 and 200m breaststroke, but can she emulate one of her idols with a medal at the Olympics?
The 23-year-old has been swimming her way into the hearts and minds of South African sports fans over the last few years, with her double gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games really putting her on the map.
She followed that up with an historic silver medal in the 200m breaststroke at the 2019 Fina long-course world championships, becoming the first SA woman to claim a top-three spot in the event.
Schoenmaker has proved that she is in top shape for the Tokyo Olympics by setting a new 100m breaststroke African record of one minute 05.89 seconds in Stellenbosch in February, ahead of the SA Olympic trials in Gqeberha, which start tomorrow at the Newton Park Swimming Pool.
“Definitely not (expect to set a new record in Stellenbosch), especially the way I was feeling a week before, when we had some trials. And I actually went a 1:09,” Schoenmaker told Independent Media.
“I was very surprised. It makes me a bit more excited and positive to the build-up to the Olympics. It’s always so hard. I never really swum good times during our nationals. I’d get a qualifying time, but I’m never close to my actual PBs.”
Those personal bests – 1:05.89 in the 100m and 2:21.79 in the 200m – are African records once held by Heyns, who won two gold medals at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics and a bronze at the 2000 Sydney Games.
Schoenmaker said she never looked at such marks, adding that “it’s crazy to think all those times were world records – Penny Heyns’ times were world records … I’ve obviously surprised myself a lot”.
At the Tokyo Olympics, the 100m final is on July 27, and the 200m final on July 30. Adding in heats and semi-finals, that’s a lot of racing, but Schoenmaker is undaunted by the challenge.
“I mostly do well with like back-to-back racing. At nationals, I compete in freestyle events, and IM (individual medley) events sometimes. So I definitely think it gives us enough time,” Schoenmaker said.
“And I love that the 100 is before the 200 – it just gives you that … first 100 pays for the 200.”
Schoenmaker said that the Covid19 pandemic actually allowed her to have a rare “proper break”, as swimming was a year-round sport.
Now it’s all about the Olympics. American Lilly King (100m) and Russian Yulia Efimova (200m) are the favourites in Tokyo, but Schoenmaker is regarded as one of two SA swimming medal hopes – alongside Chad le Clos – especially in the 200m breaststroke.
“If I can make a final, it would be amazing. I think all those things (previous medals) are already such career highlights. I think there’s nothing more you can do. I think just to keep your head in it, and not to create too much pressure on yourself by people’s expectations,” Schoenmaker said.
“I think I’m just there to do my best, give my best. If I swim a PB there, that’s amazing. I think not a lot of people or some people can say they actually went to the Olympics and swam their best times and stuff.
“I think the pressure gets a lot there as well. I am definitely just excited to be able to swim my best times.
“And ja, we’ll see what it does. If I get to the final … They say if you have a lane, you have a chance. I mean, Wayde van Niekerk came from lane eight (to win gold).”