Back in Suriname, Renzo Tjon-A-Joe Is Hard at Work In and Out of Water

Renzo Tjon-A-Joe
Photo Courtesy: Renzo Tjon-A-Joe

When Renzo Tjon-A-Joe weighed the possibility of an elite swimming career in his late teens, he knew it would require leaving his native Suriname.

To work his way into the upper echelons of the world of swimming, the United States would be the best place for him, he reasoned then. As much as he loved his home country, it lacked an Olympic-length pool. Outdoor pools without temperature controls in a tropical climate weren’t conducive to the hours of workouts his fitness demanded.

So off Tjon-A-Joe went, to train at Auburn University, to study economics at Harvard, to end up training among fellow Olympians in Florida … only to find himself, on the precipice of what was to be his second Olympics, back in his home country, waiting out the COVID-19 pandemic that has postponed the Tokyo Games to 2021.

“A big reason why I left for the U.S. was because Suriname just doesn’t have the facilities to perform at a high level,” Tjon-A-Joe told Swimming World this week from his childhood home. “And it’s not just facilities; it’s the structures, the training partners, things like that. Both (Trinidad and Tobago native) Dylan Carter and I had dealt with these same types of issues that we would love to train at home. It’s just the infrastructure isn’t here and that’s why we left. And now that I’m back, I’m again confronted the challenges that I had prior to leaving in 2014 for that future in swimming.”

The return to Suriname has contained silver linings for Tjon-A-Joe, who finished 21st in the 50 free at the Rio Olympics. He’s spent time with family, his reason for returning in the first place. He’s able to explore business opportunities that would normally be shunted aside by the training calendar. And he’s renewed a connection to his country in the longest stint he’s been home since lighting out for his future in the U.S.

Take Me To The River

Before COVID-19 hit, Tjon-A-Joe trained in Coral Springs, Fla., alongside Brazilian sprinter Bruno Fratus. But the pandemic’s global shutdown forced him to make decisions about where he’d spend the weeks and possibly months that would follow.

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Renzo Tjon-A-Joe poses with Suriname’s all-time best swimmer Antony Nesty. Photo Courtesy: Renzo Tjon-A-Joe

While some swimmers – among them Carter, who stayed put near his training base in San Diego – remained in the States, Tjon-A-Joe boarded a repatriation flight to Suriname in late March. He then underwent a compulsory two-week quarantine, holed up in a hotel room where he watched months of training gains melt away, trying to salvage what he could with pushups and crunches.

Those gains were significant. Renzo Tjon-A-Joe was coming off a strong 2019 season. His best 50 free time of 22.24, from the Toyota U.S. Open, was one-hundredth back of his time in Rio and within .06 of his personal best. He also set a personal-best of 49.29 at the TYR Pro Swim Series in Richmond last August. Both are Olympic consideration cuts. He added a finals appearance in the 50 at the 2019 Pan American Games.

Many facilities in Suriname have remained open for Tjon-A-Joe to stay in the water. But when the lockdown intensified in early June, he headed for open water: The Suriname River, a return to his roots that Tjon-A-Joe relished.

“Prior to me going to the U.S. when I was a bit younger, there was a lot of swimming in the river,” he said. “And it was kind of nice to have that free time again. We have a family house close by the river that I used to swim in, and I just kind of went back in it, swimming across the Suriname River current. It’s kind of like the most endless pool there is. Swimming against the current, I quite enjoy it. And if you swim in a river that houses piranhas and river monsters, I feel like you can swim in any kind of environment. That fear factor that comes with it, it’s fun.”

One of the biggest training adjustments has been the absence of Fratus. The veteran Brazilian sprinter and Tjon-A-Joe have a long training partnership, most recently in Coral Springs under coach Michelle Lenhardt, also Fratus’ wife. Without someone to work with, Tjon-A-Joe has had to summon internal sources of motivation in the pool and gym.

“It’s been tough since I do enjoy training with Bruno,” Tjon-A-Joe said. “He’s such a professional, and if you see someone like that performing at the top of the world and still showing up every day and pushing himself and me being right beside him through that process, and now it’s me having to do that by myself. I know he was used to training alone and that’s kind of what I’m learning to do right now. It definitely has a different mental aspect to it, but it is rewarding.”

“I was the kind of swimmer that I really liked training alone and just me and my coach in the swimming pool. With him it is different,” Fratus said in May of Tjon-A-Joe. “We have a friendship that goes way back to maybe 2014 or 2015. So if I had to choose someone that was working with me daily then it would be him for sure. He is very talented – a nice kid and a hard working athlete. So I’m glad to have someone like him. The kid can go! He can really swim so we have a lot of fun workouts.”

Feeling at Home

It didn’t take long for COVID-19 to hit close to home for Tjon-A-Joe. Suriname’s first fatality from the disease was Rik Schuitemaker on April 3. He was a family friend, someone he knew well from Schuitemaker’s work with the country’s Chamber of Commerce and its swimming federation.

Schuitemaker’s daughters, Tjon-A-Joe said, were unable to come back from the Netherlands to attend funeral services. Such a situation weighed Tjon-A-Joe, with his parents back in Suriname, and he couldn’t countenance the possibility of something happening while he was unable to reach them.

Tjon-A-Joe, who turns 25 next week, had anticipated returning to his studies after the Olympics this summer, a plan pushed indefinitely into the future. But he’s gaining hands-on experience at home.

He’s active in venture capital, with interests in the nation’s real estate market and its growing supplies of natural resources, including oil.

How long he’ll stay in Suriname remains a question. Travel restrictions remain in place globally, and Florida is currently absorbing an explosion of COVID-19 cases.

Until meets restart, Renzo Tjon-A-Joe is making the most of his time. He carries an economist’s sensibility: He’s one of his country’s biggest sporting assets, and while he works toward success in the pool, he’s also eager to take how he represents Suriname on the global stage and translate it into other areas.

“Sports and business go hand-in-hand, and I haven’t had the opportunity to lay a foothold in the Surinamese business world, and that’s how I’ve been spending the bulk of my free time in Suriname,” he said. “… I believe Suriname has a bright future, and as a Surinamese native, I intend to be a part of that.”

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