Two Decades after First Fukuoka Worlds, Roland Schoeman Still ‘Smelling the Roses’

Roland Schoeman of South Africa competes in the 50m Butterfly Men Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.
Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

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Two Decades after First Fukuoka Worlds, Roland Schoeman Still ‘Smelling the Roses’

Roland Schoeman wasn’t yet 21, but his veteran coach knew an adjustment was order.

It was 2001, and the promising South African sprinter had shifted for a summer to train with coach Mike Bottom and his fellow sprint star Anthony Ervin. Beyond the sets and the hard work in the pool, Schoeman got one piece of information from Bottom that 22 years later continues to resonate.

“One thing that Mike said was, ‘smell the roses,’” Schoeman said. “I’d been very, very serious in my life for a huge amount of time, and that was really the first opportunity that I had to kind of enjoy the moment, enjoy the experience.”

That experience was a FINA World Championships in Fukuoka. More than two decades later, just past his 43rd birthday, Schoeman was back in Japan, still swimming, still enjoying the journey, still smelling those roses.

Schoeman was the oldest participant in the World Aquatics Championships, less than a year after he decided to return to swimming. (Born in 1980, he was one of only 10 swimmers at Worlds born in that decade and three years older than the next oldest participant, 39-year-old Marc Dansou of Benin.)

Roland Schoeman of South Africa competes in the 50m Butterfly Men Heats during the 20th World Aquatics Championships at the Marine Messe Hall A in Fukuoka (Japan), July 23rd, 2023.

Roland Schoeman; Photo Courtesy: Giorgio Scala / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Still based in Arizona, where he attended college in Tucson, and an American citizen, Schoeman felt short in his bid to qualify for a fifth Olympics in 2016. He was banned for a doping violation in July of 2019, though he’s since been exonerated of that for proof of a contaminated substance, a multiyear order that required appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Once that was resolved, Schoeman returned to Masters Swimming and found he was having fun and still moving quite well. So he got to wondering …

“By virtue of the fact that I was swimming better and better and better and going times that I hadn’t gone in a significant amount of time, it was really based on that,” he said. “We were like, why don’t I go swim trials? If I qualify, I qualify. If I don’t qualify, I don’t qualify. It was purely based on that. As we trained and got faster and faster, the idea of being able to come and be here was more and more at the forefront of my belief and what I wanted.”

Schoeman’s improvement earned him another Worlds, swimming the 50 free in Fukuoka. He was slightly quicker than his seed time, going 22.87 to tie for 50th place. It’s a far cry from his best of 21.67, set first at the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and matched five years later at Worlds in Barcelona. He’s still chasing the 22.18 that got him bronze in Fukuoka 22 years ago and the 22.02 that earned bronze at the Athens Olympics. But his Fukuoka swim is more than a starting point.

He hadn’t planned on returning to elite competition when he got back into the pool, just as a way to exercise. But when the comeback became something he wanted, he drew upon his extensive network of friends for advice. Brent Hayden, who made a similar comeback to reach the Tokyo Olympics in his late 30s, is a close friend and advisor. Schoeman also picked the brain of Dara Torres, who made comebacks an art well into her 40s.

The three-time Olympic medalist and former World Record holder in the 50 butterfly has dipped into the lessons of his past. His standout memory from the Fukuoka Words in 2001 was getting silly to lighten the mood before events, coming out in a gi before one event and mugging for the cameras. He’s utilizing the same in-the-moment joy now, relishing being pushed by the competitive environment of major meets.

“Having trained on my own as long as I have, it’s difficult when you stand up and you’re doing your own thing,” Schoeman said. “You don’t have a benchmark. It’s just a different atmosphere, a different vibe, a different energy. So to be in a position once again to be able to be up on the blocks, race against others but also continue to evolve and grow and learn more about myself, it’s just this duality which is really, really cool.”

Roland Schoeman is striving for the Paris Games. He envisions training trips abroad, perhaps in Australia, to incorporate new elements to his repertoire. He’s got the Olympic A cut in the 50 (21.96 seconds) circled.

In Fukuoka, he was particularly excited about the chance to bridge the gap between South African swimming eras, including on a youthful mixed 400 free relay Saturday, even for a program whose big names on the men’s side largely stayed home this summer.

Schoeman thinks he can contribute among them, and he’s eager to see where the next year takes him.

“Today, being able to be a part of the relay, that’s really special, because I never had this opportunity with these kids on the team,” he said. “That’s a really great experience.”

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Whanui Puru
Whanui Puru
4 months ago

That is one heck an achievement for a bloke of his age;42! I’m in awe of this man. Go mate! Good luck!

Peter Moore
Peter Moore
2 months ago

My son and I were fortunate to go to a clinic Roland did in Pleasanton, CA during COVID. He was brilliant. Go get that Olympics A cut!