Tatjana Schoenmaker: The latest breaststroke diamond out of South Africa

Schoenmaker will be looking to emulate her compatriot Penny Heyns in winning both the Olympic 100m and 200m breaststroke titles.

Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Five years ago, Tatjana Schoenmaker could not hold back the tears. One-hundredth of a second is infinitesimally small, but it is enough to shatter an Olympic dream.

Months earlier, a 19-year-old Schoenmaker posted the qualifying time for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games in the 200m breaststroke, but she needed to do it again at the South African trials to secure her spot.

What should have been a formality turned into such bitter disappointment that it nearly resulted in the loss of one of South Africa's brightest young swimming diamonds.

I wouldn't have been where I am today if I did maybe go to the Olympics in 2016.

Schoenmaker contemplated giving up on swimming, but she stuck it out. And now, with multiple national and continental records, double Commonwealth Games titles, and a world silver medal to her name, she is on the cusp of Olympic glory.

"It was a tough setback. I really struggled to enjoy swimming after that, the excitement was so real, and we were getting so happy about me going, and then finding out I didn't make it," Schoenmaker told Olympics.com.

"But now I feel like I'm very happy, compared to who I was as a person and where I was in life."

Reassessed goals

The disappointment forced Schoenmaker to reassess her goals, and she switched to her current coach, Rocco Meiring, who has carefully and patiently guided his young charge over the years.

"So, no, I'm very grateful that I didn't go. It sounds weird," Schoenmaker said, followed by a laugh. "I am very happy, and I can say it would probably be as a motivation that it didn't work out, and that was meant to be like that.

"I'm in such a much better place now, and I feel like I'm much more ready this time," she added. "I wouldn't have been where I am today if I did maybe go to the Olympics. I wouldn't be where I am with my times and stuff right now."

Face of a female revival

The South African Olympic trials in 2016 marked the second consecutive year female swimmers failed to qualify for a major global event. The country last featured female swimmers at the 2013 world championships, but they have withered, retired and given up.

Schoenmaker has emerged as the face of South African female swimming’s revival and is forging a similar path to one of the country’s most famous Olympians – Penny Heyns.

Heyns was a trailblazer of her time and remains among the greats as the only woman in history to win both the 100m and 200m breaststroke gold medals, thanks to her heroics at the Atlanta 1996 Olympics. Her bronze medal at the following Games in Sydney 2000 was the last major medal by a South African female in the 50-metre pool.

Schoenmaker highlighted her potential when she raced to a rare 100-200m breaststroke double gold at the 2018 Gold Coast Commonwealth Games setting national and continental records over both distances.

The following year, Schoenmaker became the first female since Heyns to win a gold medal at the World Student Games in Italy, just a week before her maiden appearance at the world championships.

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Picture by 2018 Getty Images

Without goggles!

Schoenmaker made it into her first final at the 2019 World Championships in the women's 100m breaststroke, where she lined up with American world record-holder Lilly King and defending world champion Yuliya Efimova.

In the women's 200m breaststroke final, Schoenmaker finished second behind Efimova, becoming the first South African female to win a medal at the world long-course championships.

Asked about the comparisons with Heyns, Schoenmaker admitted it would take some doing to reach the dizzying heights of her predecessor.

I've always said that I would want to take my own path, not trying to take Penny off the map. She'll never be off the map.

"I don't think I would ever reach performances of that magnitude and the way she swam, even without goggles, I mean, I wouldn't be swimming these times with no goggles," Schoenmaker said.

"She's always encouraging me, always trying to make me push. So, it's not like you try and hold someone back not to break your record," she went on. "You try and motivate them to go for it. We're very blessed to have such an amazing role model to look up to."

Already breaking new ground, Schoenmaker hopes to build on Heyns' legacy, starting by emulating her, which is no small feat.

"I've always said that I would want to take my own path, not trying to take Penny off the map. She'll never be off the map," she said. "So just to at least get close to her achievements would be amazing."

Inspiring London 2012 moment

Although Heyns' legacy has provided plenty of goals to chase, Schoenmaker's dream of reaching and performing on the Olympic stage was instead sparked by Chad le Clos' breakthrough at the London 2012 spectacle.

Le Clos upset the great Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly final, smashing into the wall 0.05s ahead of the American to claim the Olympic gold medal.

It was the first year Schoenmaker had transferred to a sports school in Pretoria after Meiring had identified her exceptional talent in the pool.

A 14-year-old Schoenmaker and her school friends watched in awe as Le Clos claimed one of the biggest scalps of his career, leaving an impression on the mind of another future star.

"It was 2012 when we were all sitting in our hostels at Tuks sports watching Chad's race against Michael. And it was that close touch. And we were like, 'no, no, he probably didn't get it'. And when Chad's name came up, I remember everyone going crazy, and I was like, wow, this would be amazing," Schoenmaker recalled.

"And then I just realised, okay, I am here for something like that in my life. So I might as well push through and see where I can go."

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Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Pulling a Penny

Schoenmaker came into her maiden Olympic Games in Tokyo with the world lead in her pet 200m breaststroke event – the seventh fastest of all time – while she was among the top six women over the 100m distance this year.

The 24-year-old Schoenmaker would have preferred to fly under the radar, but her stellar performances have made it difficult for the swimming world not to notice.

"Obviously, everyone is very excited and hearing world lead. They just see medals, which is amazing," Schoenmaker said.

"And it's not that I'm not going to fight for it, but yeah, I'm not going to put that pressure on myself," she added. "I would rather just know that I gave my best, and I know everything I did to that point. I couldn't have done anything else."

The weight of expectations will be heavy on Schoenmaker's shoulders at these Tokyo Games as South Africans hope she can pull another Penny under the glare of the world's brightest spotlight.

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