By Craig Lord
SYDNEY, Sept. 20. PENNY Heyns, the South African who is the only woman ever to win both the 100 and 200 metres Olympic breaststroke titles, announced her retirement from international swimming today after failing to make it through to the semi-finals of the 200 metres breaststroke.
Asked if her 20th place finish in 2mins 30.17sec, her slowest time for six years, would mean the end of Penny Heyns, the South African who set 11 world records – long and short-course – from July to September 1999, replied: "It's never the end of Penny Heyns but its my last swim at this level." A deeply religious woman who prays before every race, Heyns added: "God has better things in mind for me."
Born in Springs, Gauteng, in South Africa on November 8, 1974, Heyns's family moved to a town called Amanzimtoti in Kwazulu Natal when she was a year old. The town name means "The place of sweet waters" in Zulu. Between 1996 and 1999, Heyns enjoyed many a sweet moment in the water.
During those years, she won both Olympic titles, established five world records over 100 metres and four over 200 metres. Within the space of six days at the Pan Pacific Championships at the Sydney Olympic pool in 1999, she broke the 100 metres record once, the 200 metres twice and asked if she could do a time trial over 50 metres – the result, a fourth world
record within a week. Those standards still remain, at 30.83sec, 1min 06.52sec and 2mins 23.64sec.
In achieving what she did in such a short space of time, she joined the likes of Americans Debbie Meyer and Mark Spitz in the league of the few who have made such a massive run on the record books.
After winning in Atlanta in 1996 – where she caused controversy by sporting a Springbok tatto, which many in South Africa regarded as a symbol of apartheid – Heyns was taken aback by the publicity she generated. The tatto had not meant to be "offensive" she said, while her apparent inability to show any emotion whatsoever as she received her gold medals was explained thus: "I had seen people crying and waving and being overjoyed at winning a medal, but I felt if I were to do that, it would be acting. I didn't know what to do. being South African, I didn't grow up with the Olympic dream like most people. Only when I went back to South Africa did I realise what a bid deal it was."
After Atlanta, Heyns went back to training. But at the world championships at Perth, in Australia, failed to win a medal. "I had no desire any more," she said. "I was miserable, I had no peace…now and then I'd get into the water…I wasn't lifting weights. People were telling me to quit."
She did not. Instead, she moved to rejoin her former coach Jan Bidrman in Calagary, Canada. She started weight-training again, packed on the pounds with the help of creatine, bthe legal muscle-building substance and by the Pan Pacific championships in August 1999 was in the shape of her life.
Then in March this year distaster struck. One of her closest friends, Tara Sloan, one of Canada's most popular swimmers and also a breaststroke specialist, died when her car crashed.
Heyns was with her when she died in hospital and said that the tragedy had "tired me out emotionally".
In a moving tribute to her late friend, Heyns said Sloan had touched and elevated her life. "You can't say it was an excuse (for my slow swims), but it did affect my training for a while, not just for me, but for others on the team. The greatest thing you can say about someone's life is the effect their presence
has on the lives of others.
"You could not know Tara and not be touched. She not only affected my life, but she affected the lives of those around her. Yes, I miss her very much."
Sloan had been driving to see her grandparents' house in Swift Current when the accident happened. It was the
weekend her teammates were traveling to the Olympic Trials. Sloan, 20, was sitting out the Trials but
had planned to qualify for the Olympics later that summer.
Heyns said today: "You have to move on and just remember the person. It is the effect she has had or the effect anyone has on people's lives that matters. It taught me what is important."
Heyns finished third in the 100 metres breaststroke in Sydney and said that in some ways she had enjoyed the moment more than her winning experiences in Atlanta.
"I can't explain how proud I am," said Heyns, who defines success as "celebrating your talents and achieving your goals." Of her efforts in Sydney she said: "I am not at my best but I have given my best."
She added: "You never know how you will handle disappointment until it comes your way. And I thank God that he didn't spare me that experience.