Tatjana Schoenmaker Named Swimming World African Female Swimmer of the Year; On Road to Further Stardom

tatjana schoenmaker, olympics, Jul 30, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Tatjana Schoenmaker (RSA) reacts after winning the women's 200m breaststroke final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Grace Hollars-USA TODAY Sports

Tatjana Schoenmaker Named Swimming World African Female Swimmer of the Year; On Road to Further Stardom

Tatjana Schoenmaker was four swims into the Tokyo Olympics before her post-race confidence caught up to her in-pool excellence.

By that point, Schoenmaker had bagged a silver medal in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke and two Olympic records. The 24-year-old declared from the podium that she “can’t be any more happy” with winning the first South African women’s swimming medal in 21 years. Then she set about immediately testing that assertion.

When she trounced the Olympic record in prelims of the 200 breast, buzzing within .05 seconds of the world record, Schoenmaker knew work still remained if she was going to add gold to her trophy case. But it was just as clear that the South African was in the midst of a special, historic Olympics.

Her swim two days later cemented that place in history. Schoenmaker touched the wall in 2:18.95. She had her gold medal, the first individual world record of the Games and the only individual women’s mark of the meet. She also created an indelible moment in Olympic lore, the utter shock and the outpouring of emotion at the letters “WR” on the scoreboard. Her embrace with fellow medalists Lilly King and Annie Lazor, joined by fifth-place South African teammate Kaylene Corbett, was a portrait of the perseverance that this unprecedented Olympic cycle required.

So many threads of the Games collided in that moment of effervescent joy. Schoenmaker’s emotional release spoke to her monumental achievement. Only Caeleb Dressel would join her as an individual world record holder, to go with four relay marks. The abnormally low total reflected the toll taken by training disruptions in 2020-21 caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.

But the mass of two Americans and two South Africans – one crying, others beaming, for themselves or others – offered a window into the camaraderie of the Games, a cross-continent celebration of what they’d all endured.

“It was exciting because it was such a good race,” Schoenmaker said then. “I enjoyed it and it was also amazing that all the girls could celebrate each others’ victories. We all came together in the middle and I really hope it stays like that and goes on to other strokes, because it’s so amazing to celebrate with each other and leave the competition in the pool and after the race is done to just be with each other and have fun.”

Schoenmaker etched her name, alongside countrywoman Penny Heyns and Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry, as icons of African swimming. At 24, she’s squarely in the prime of her career. Change has come to the women’s breaststroke field, an event that for the last half-decade has been ruled by the feud between King and Russian Yulia Efimova. While King won two medals in Tokyo and remains a global power, the ascent of teens Lydia Jacoby in the 100 and Evegeniia Chikunova to fourth in the 200 indicates a generational shift. Over the condensed Olympic cycle to Paris 2024, Schoenmaker could be a major factor.

Schoenmaker has already proven that she can carry the responsibility of gold outside the pool. She’s advocated for the burgeoning generation of young South African stars saying within the country to train as she did. She’s started a faith-centered charity, the Tatjana Foundation, to help expand access to the sport in South Africa and to support young athletes, using her celebrity to raise funds.

Schoenmaker’s experience in Tokyo was as something of an outsider. She maintained at every level, alongside more veteran or more decorated opponents, that she was just happy to qualify for the next level. Having reached the top of the mountain, she seems uniquely poised to be the conduit for others to make that jump, and she’s got the knowhow to take her career to that next level.

“I would’ve never even thought, because it’s my first Olympics, that for me to get a lane in the final, then everyone stands a chance,” she said after the 200. “So that’s the thing I’ve always been after. This has exceeded all my expectations, so I couldn’t be happier.”

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Pam Reynecke
4 months ago

South Africa is so proud of you Tatjana. Your swimming achievements have been amazing, but more than that you have shown the world the true meaning of sportsmanship and you’ve done it all for God’s glory.