Quick Tatjana lays down Olympic marker

TATJANA Smith was in fine form at the SA Championships in Gqeberha this week. SA Sports Images

TATJANA Smith was in fine form at the SA Championships in Gqeberha this week. SA Sports Images

Published Apr 13, 2024


A NEW year, a new surname and renewed hope of Olympic glory – that is the space in which Tatjana Smith finds herself right now.

Having got married to Joel Smith – the brother of Rachel Kolisi, wife of Springbok captain Siya – last November, she has now declared that she wants to be known as Tatjana Smith (née Schoenmaker), and it seems to be having the necessary positive effect on her performances.

At the start of the year, things were looking bleak for Team South Africa’s medal hopes at the Paris Olympics, but once again, Smith is stepping up as Mzansi’s leading light.

She was the sole champion at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, clinching gold in the 200m breaststroke, to which she added silver in the 100m breaststroke.

A surprise SA medallist at the Tokyo Games was surfer Bianca Buitendag, with other potential podium finishers unable to claim a top-three spot.

While Smith won the world championship title last year in the 200m breaststroke, her times over the past few years weren’t close to the then-world record of 2min 18.95sec she set at the Tokyo Olympics.

But even though Russian Evgenia Chikunova set a new world mark of 2:17.55 last year, Smith is now virtually back to her best, proving that she is getting in to prime shape for Paris, where the swimming competition will take place from July 24-August 1.

During this week’s SA Championships at Newton Park in Gqeberha, Smith produced an outstanding performance to register the third-fastest time in history in the 200m breaststroke.

The 26-year-old touched the wall in 2:19.01 to claim the SA title on Wednesday, which is not far off her personal best of 2:18.95 – the Olympic record and second-fastest time in history.

— Swimming Stats (@SwimmingStats) April 11, 2024

And just to show that it wasn’t all about endurance, she set a new personal best of 30.09sec in the non-Olympic 50m breaststroke earlier in the week, while in the 100m breaststroke heat yesterday morning, she clocked the second-fastest time in the world in 2024 with 1:05.64.

So it seems like it is all finally coming together for Smith ahead of the Olympics.

“I think I still can’t really grasp the concept... I’m splits away from my PB… I’m just grateful to be back on the times, feeling myself again in the water,” she said in a Swimming SA statement.

“I was really struggling to find my rhythm in the water, and I think I’ve gotten it now.

“This morning was quite surprising. I really felt comfortable, so I was expecting maybe a 2:21 or if I was lucky a 2:20, so when I saw 2:19, it was unreal.

“The finals are obviously a bit tougher because you’re tired after the morning, but I think that’s the point of going out hard in the mornings is to challenge yourself – and I think if you push yourself over that line, then you can expect to do a bit better in the finals as well.

“I’m very grateful. It is a bit of a confidence boost.”

Smith added in a Tuks Sport statement: “I never thought I would get to be swimming such fast times again. But I always said a happy swimmer is a fast swimmer. My results are showing it.

“I genuinely can take confidence in my training. Over the past two years, I have seen excellent times in training, but it did not match up with my racing. Emotionally, it took its toll.

“My goal now, every time I race, is to enjoy the experience and execute my technique flawlessly. Racing should not only be about results. It is more important to be happy when I leave the pool.”

Now Team SA will hope that there will be further good news in next week’s SA athletics championships at the Msunduzi Athletics Stadium in Pietermaritzburg, which takes place from April 18-21.

Perennial 100m Olympic finalist Akani Simbine is sure to line up in the short sprint, although it remains to be seen whether the other SA medal hopeful, Wayde van Niekerk, will participate.

The 400m world record-holder has been hard at work in training in South Africa over the last few months, and will hope to rekindle the glory of the 2016 Rio Olympics, where he thrilled the globe with a new mark of 43.03sec.