WATCH: How Tatjana Schoenmaker turned Rio Olympics despair into Tokyo 2020 glory



Published Feb 5, 2022


Cape Town - Tatjana Schoenmaker may now be a celebrated Olympic champion, but she first had to endure true heartbreak before becoming a gold medallist and world record holder.

The South African breaststroke sensation was close to participating in the 2016 Rio Olympics, but missed out by one-hundredth of a second (0.01) on qualification.

Now, just over six months after winning the 200m breaststroke in a new world record of 2:18.95, and claiming a silver in the 100m breaststroke, Schoenmaker believes that missing out on Rio actually played a major part in her success in Tokyo last year.

“There was so much that I needed to learn. This 19-year-old … I needed to grow personally, emotionally, everything, to be able to go to such a big stage. So now I’m very grateful that it actually happened,” Schoenmaker said this week.

“It is definitely tough (to maintain the physical intensity), especially if we do it 50 weeks of the year … It’s not that easy just to swim a 2:18! All that effort for years and years. But it’s worth the sacrifice because I’m so blessed to do what I love every single day.

“And it almost becomes a routine – there are some weeks that are more challenging than others. But we all know that, even getting up for work, sometimes it’s easy, sometimes it’s not. But you just get up and know you’ve got to do it. You know you have to put the hours in.”

The 24-year-old spoke to IOL Sport at an event hosted by one of her sponsors, Under Armour, in Cape Town.

The sports brand celebrated their five-year anniversary in South Africa by showcasing the achievements of a number of athletes whom they sponsor, including boxer Kevin Lerena, Paralympian star Ntando Mahlangu and Blitzboks rugby captain Siviwe Soyizwapi.

Athletes Ntando Mahlangu, Kevin Lerena, Siviwe Soyizwapi and Tatjana Schoenmaker at the Under Armour Mental Strength Symposium. Picture: Ayanda Ndamane/African News Agency (ANA)

The Under Armour Mental Strength Symposium saw the athletes relating their journeys to the top of their sport, and the mental and physical challenges they had to tackle to become champions.

Schoenmaker said her achievements in Japan had not yet sunk in. “No! I don’t think it will ever – which is a great thing,” she said with her trademark giggle.

“When you don’t realise that the best thing, this ultimate dream that you had as a child, has already come true … I don’t think you want to let go of that dream, in the sense of, I’m still excited to go to the Olympics, as if I’ve never been.”

Schoenmaker said the backing from sponsors and fans has been overwhelming.

“Every single person, greeting me at the shop, wanting to take photos … it’s just so amazing to see the support.”

Schoenmaker added that being among the sponsored athletes was extra special in that she could celebrate her achievements and milestones with the rest of the sponsorship family.

“It’s so nice because now we can celebrate it together – and that’s the best part!”

It would be easy for Schoenmaker to hang up her swimming goggles at this stage and pursue a career outside of the swimming pool, having graduated from the University of Pretoria with a BCom Financial Sciences degree.

She was also busy with a Higher Certificate in Sport Science Education last year.

But she is not ready to get out of the pool just yet. Despite the long hours of training, her long-term goal is to compete at the 2024 Paris Olympics in France.

Before that, though, looms the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in July and August, while the swimming world championship has been shifted from this year to July 2023 in Fukuoka, Japan due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

“I think in some way, it is obviously a bit sad (that the world championships has been moved) because it just gives you that exposure of racing others, because some countries aren’t at the Commonwealth Games,” Schoenmaker said.

“But it would’ve been a big challenge for us. We normally do all our competitions in July and August, so the one in May (world championships) would’ve been so hard to juggle.

“I think it is also definitely a blessing in disguise, in that now the main focus is Commonwealth Games. I can’t wait to be back on the Commies team – that’s where it basically all started for me as well (in 2018). It’s exciting to go back to the roots almost.

“We will have to see if (the 2023 world championships) fits into the schedule, and how it will impact the training towards Paris. Tokyo being extended by a year was a blessing, but in the sense of moving (focus) to Paris, it’s not a four-year journey.

“We have about two-and-a-half years left, and that’s nothing compared to four years. That’s great for me because I’m getting older! So, I don’t know how much longer you can keep up this physical intensity and stuff, so I’m looking forward to everything that’s going to happen in the next few years.”

And what about Paris 2024? Can she defend her 200m title, and go one better in the 100m?

“We always know it’s never about the medals for me,” Schoenmaker smiled. “I definitely still want to focus on the 100 and 200. I think that’s already a challenge on its own, because it’s two different fields – you have the sprinters and the mid-distance people.”

She said it would be disappointing not to register another personal best time, considering the hard work that goes into her training regimen.

“That’s already an amazing challenge, and I’m so ready to take on that challenge. And if I can improve on my time in both sides, it would be great. But it wouldn’t end or crush my spirit of this hope and passion I have for this sport anyway.”