In early March, Henri Schoeman had been a day away from travelling to his first World Triathlon Series (WTS) race of the season, in Abu Dhabi, when a COVID-19 outbreak there forced its postponement. While not expecting the global shutdown that was to follow, Schoeman nevertheless had first-hand experience of the debilitating power of a novel coronavirus, having fallen ill in September.
“It was no joke. I remember googling coronavirus and there was hardly anything about the illness at the time. Now, you can’t escape the word. I was hospitalised and out for a month; then it took another month to try to regain full strength. You have to be so careful. As an athlete, you push yourself to the limit and your immune system is on the edge,” the 28-year-old said.
The episode came just after the end of the 2019 season and led the South African to take some extended downtime, which included getting married and the less exciting prospect of treating an ongoing Achilles issue. The Abu Dhabi race was supposed to be the first step in a season-long build-up towards the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 – an assessment of where he was after a rollercoaster few months. While that first step has yet to materialise, Schoeman is philosophical about the 12-month Olympic delay.
“Personally, it makes little difference whether the Games are this year or next,” he said. “I was happy with where I was, but we have another year to maybe get wiser and perhaps think of things that you wouldn’t have. I took some time to regroup. The Olympic postponement took some pressure off, and then I was able to start formulating some goals. You just have to take a couple of steps back and build up again.”
Schoeman is hoping to improve on his bronze-medal finish at Rio 2016, where he took to the podium alongside British brothers Alistair and Jonny Brownlee to collect his nation’s only Olympic triathlon medal since the sport was added to the Games programme in Sydney two decades ago.
The 2018 Commonwealth Games champion believes there have been positives to take from lockdown life at home in the suburbs of Durban. While the motivation to get in an increasingly chilly autumn pool for a tethered “swim” might not always be at its strongest, working on his running power has been an unexpected bonus.
Motivation has been a big factor Henri Schoeman - Henri Schoeman
“With the swimming, the pool isn’t great and motivation is down, so I’m setting targets of 45 minutes to an hour every other day, and then focusing on the treadmill and building that up. I’m already feeling the effects of a couple of solid weeks of running and doing some faster work, so there have been some big positives coming out of this.”
Those positives included a 14-minute, 16-second time trial over 5km just before South Africa introduced restrictions on movement, suggesting that there could be another special performance to come from Schoeman when it matters most over the next 18 months.
That ability to adapt is central to a triathlete’s make-up at the best of times. One of the first impacts of enforced lockdown was a surge in demands on Schoeman’s time, just when things were at their most uncertain for everybody. Requests for interviews and sponsor commitments poured in, and acclimatising to the new rhythm took a few weeks, just as he was supposed to be working towards his ultimate goal.
“I tried my best for the sponsors, because they’re struggling like everyone else, and to focus on the important interviews. Sometimes it might have got a little too much, but I feel we have found a nice routine now. I know I’m fortunate. There’s certainly a lot of people out there who are much more uncomfortable right now,” he said.
Then there is the relentless call of social media. Schoeman admits he has always operated somewhat in his own sphere in terms of training groups, but he does like to make as much time as possible to filter through his inbox and hear the stories of those who follow him.
“If you have an Olympic medal, there’s got to be a reason, and I think that’s why people approach me. As a youngster, I saw the Olympics and I just wanted to know how they got their medals, how they trained, what they did. So I do try and reach out to the younger generations and try to inspire that sort of thing too, or reply to the youngsters asking for advice or about lockdown motivation.”
The International Triathlon Union recently announced that its first rearranged WTS event will be held in Hamburg, Germany, in September. That is of course good news for Schoeman and his fellow triathletes, as they await some longed-for competition. His participation, however, is far from guaranteed.
“There’s so much uncertainty around international travel, so there’ll be a lot of logistics to sort out,” he said. “Will we have to quarantine, for example? But it’s exciting to have a race on the schedule. It’ll be great to be back on that start line. If I can get there, I’ll be there, whatever level my training allows me to get to.”