Tatjana Schoenmaker Helping South African Women Prove Their Mettle Ahead of 2021 Olympics

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Tatjana Schoenmaker - a season of smiles - Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

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After the South African media made several disparaging comments about the women’s swimming team in 2016 when none of their swimmers had qualified for the Rio Olympics, Tatjana Schoenmaker and her South African teammates have been supporting one another and working together to show just how good they can be.

This story appeared in the December 2020 issue of Swimming World Magazine

When 22-year-old Tatjana Schoenmaker touched the wall in the 200 meter breaststroke final at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju, she was overcome with emotion. The South African won the silver medal in her best event and set an African record in the semifinals with a 2:21.79. Her time in the final was slower than the night before, but it didn’t matter. She was on the podium and would be seeing her country’s flag raised at the major international meet of the year. It was a huge moment not only for her, but also for women’s swimming in South Africa.

It was the first medal ever won by a South African female swimmer at Worlds. And to make it even more special, she was handed her medal by South African Olympic champion Penny Heyns, who was a champion breaststroker in her heyday during the 1990s until she retired in 2001. Heyns, who captured two gold medals at Atlanta in 1996, is the only woman in Olympic history to have won both the 100 and 200 breaststroke events. Even though Heyns had an illustrious career, getting inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 2007, she never made it to the podium at the World Championships, finishing fifth in the 100 and sixth in the 200 breast at the 1998 Worlds in Perth, Australia.

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Tatjana Schoenmaker laughs with gold medalist Yulia Efimova. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

“It meant so much,” Tatjana Schoenmaker said of her silver medal performance. “You can see it was an overwhelming experience. I still remember after the race and walking to my bag to go and get changed, it just didn’t feel real. I was like, ‘Tatjana, you just won silver,’ and it felt so weird.

“For me, it was my first World Champs, so I just wanted to really experience it. It was so nice racing the world’s best and being able to try and swim fast times in this crazy new experience.

“And then having Penny Heyns hand me my medal—it was so special because…what are the odds? She’s standing there giving me my medal—it was overwhelming, but it was such an honor to be able to share that moment with Penny. She is honestly a true champion for South Africa.”

TURNING THINGS AROUND

Just three years earlier, however, women’s swimming in South Africa wasn’t nearly as promising. In 2016, not one single female swimmer had qualified for the Olympic Games in Rio. And their country hadn’t won an Olympic medal in a women’s event since Heyns took bronze in the 100 breast in 2000! To make matters worse, the women’s team certainly didn’t receive any sympathy from the local media. In fact, because of their disparaging comments, the swimmers were put on the defensive.

“It was for us to show them (the media) because we really got bad media exposure in 2016,” Schoenmaker said. “They basically said no girls made it and that we were basically useless! And we were those girls! It wasn’t a nice feeling because we were all so young. One of the oldest girls on the team is Tayla Lovemore (now 25), and she is coming through.”

And so now is the rest of the team.

2019 was a breakthrough year. Erin Gallagher got things started in April by setting an African record in the 100 meter butterfly (57.67) at the South African Championships in Durban. Then, at the World University Games at Naples, Italy, in July, South Africa’s women won four gold medals. Schoenmaker swept the 100 and 200 breast and lowered her African record in the 100 to 1:06.32sf. Meanwhile, Lovemore added wins in the 50 and 100 fly.

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Tatjana Schoenmaker (right) with Kaylene Corbett at the 2019 Worlds. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

Three weeks later, South Africa sent eight women to the World Championships, where Schoenmaker and Kaylene Corbett both made the final in the 200 breast. It was all a sign of good things to come for the South African women.

“It’s been challenging,” Schoenmaker admitted, “because the media was very negative, but I think as girls we had this mental thing where, ‘We’re going to show them.’

“In fact, we didn’t have to discuss it with each other. Since (2016), we have been supporting each other so much more, and we have been trying to prove to (the media) that we are good enough, and they shouldn’t have said those bad things because we were (young) and on our way. We just brushed it off and were like, ‘It’s fine. We’re still coming, and then they’ll be shocked.’”

PERSONAL BREAKTHROUGH

Schoenmaker made her personal international breakthrough in 2018 at the Commonwealth Games on the Gold Coast, Queensland, Australia. That’s where she swept the 100 and 200 meter breaststroke gold medals with African records in each event (1:06.41, 2:22.02). It was the first time she had won gold at an international meet.

“Even today I can’t believe that I actually won double gold at the Commonwealth Games,” she said. “It was never my plan. Coming in, I was ranked sixth or seventh in the 200. I thought I was lucky just to swim my best time in the heats (2:23.57). So, never ever was it my thinking that I was going to win some medals!

“I even remember asking (Coach) Rocco (Meiring) if he thought it was possible I could maybe win a bronze, and he was like, ‘Tatjana, it can be, but you are going to have to work really hard.’ So it wasn’t in my training cycle that I was set on winning a medal—I just one day asked him if he thought it was possible.”

Schoenmaker has been with Coach Meiring in Pretoria since she was in ninth grade. And it is the unique relationship between her and her coach that has kept her from wanting to leave and train elsewhere.

“A few universities in the U.S. asked me to come through,” Schoenmaker said. “But I don’t want to go when it is working so well for me. I love my squad and my relationship with Coach Rocco.

“I also love being here at home with my family, so even given those opportunities, it never crossed my mind twice to even think of saying yes. I always wanted to stay in South Africa and be with everyone I know. I did get opportunities, but there was no doubt in my mind that I would ever leave.”

HONORED AND BLESSED

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Tatjana Schoenmaker at the 2019 Worlds. Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

With women’s swimming in South Africa seemingly on the upswing, Schoenmaker now has her eyes set on training an extra year for the 2021 Olympic Games in Tokyo. She’s extremely grateful for all of the opportunities swimming has provided her, allowing her to travel the world and experience things she had never been able to do before.

“I’m very honored and blessed to be able to represent South Africa and to be able to do it in something I love and that no one forces on me.

“As a swimmer, you have to love the sport because you can’t build much of a career out of it with not as much funding. It’s never been something you are forced to do—it’s really something you love doing while being able to represent your country and travel the world. It’s amazing.

“There are so many places I have seen through swimming, and people in and out of swimming that I have met. I’m definitely very blessed to be able to do this.”