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South African Olympic Champ, Penny Heyns, Honored -- December 25, 2003

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa. PHENOMENAL breaststroke record holder Penny Heyns was this week honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga by President Thabo Mbeki.

The 29-year-old swimmer's name still echoes in swimming and sporting circles, despite her retirement from the sport two years ago.

Heyns set 14 world records in her career and is the only female swimmer in history to have broken four individual world records in one competition. She spoke to Israel Mlambo about life out of the pool and her admiration of humility.


Q: What does being honoured with the Order of Ikhamanga mean to you and what is its significance for swimming?

A: It's an individual thing. But I would say it's a great honour. It's good that somebody in swimming has received this order and others will be inspired by it.


Q: The life of a top athlete comes with glamour, publicity and money. Don't you miss the limelight?

A: I don't and anyway it still happens. I actually look forward to the day when it's gone because I like my privacy. I spend most of my time overseas and there is no attention there. But when I come home, there is all this attention.


Q: Why did you retire from professional swimming at the peak of your career?

A: I felt it was time to retire after swimming for 17 years. I felt I had achieved everything I wanted to in the sport. It also means that I spend more time in South Africa. Most of my Olympic years were spent overseas.


Q: Almost three years into your non-competitive swimming life, what would you say your fitness level is?

A: The last time I swam competitively was in 2000 so it's not half what it used to be during my professional days. I retired officially in 2001.


Q: Are you one of former President Nelson Mandela's honorary daughters?

A: Only he can say that. I've been blessed to meet him a few times and he has followed my career.


Q: Who's your role model?

A: Various people at various times. But Madiba for his humility and his ability to forgive despite all the things that were done to him.


Q: As a kid what did you want to become?

A: At first a marine biologist - I didn't even know what that meant. Then a medical doctor.


Q: Who do you take after in your family?

A: I think both my parents. But definitely my mother because she taught me that if I really believed and set my mind to something, I'd achieve it.


Q: What do you do in your spare time?

A: Read and hang out with friends. I also enjoy water-rafting and quad-biking.


Q: What was your most embarrassing moment?

A: At one international exhibition swim meet we were not told that the blocks were slippery. At the start, I slipped and fell and everybody left me behind. It was a funny moment and of course I lost.


Q: What are your long-term goals?

A: For now, it's settling into life outside swimming. Most prominent is my public speaking and I hope to make a significant difference with it.


Q: What's your motto in life?

A: Be honest with myself and do the best that I can with the talent I've been given.

(Courtesy Sunday Times of South Africa)