She’s one of South Africa’s top medal hopes for the Tokyo Olympics and when it comes to breaststroke, she’s the second fastest woman on the planet. She won double gold at the last Commonwealth Games, beating a record set by South African superstar Penny Heyns that had stood for 19 years. And she has to get in the water every single day, no matter how she feels. But who is TATJANA SCHOENMAKER? SHIRLEY FAIRALL found out
This article was published in 2021
TATJANA SCHOENMAKER (23) grew up in Roodepoort. She moved schools to TuksSport High in Pretoria at the age of 15, and last year graduated with a B Comm from the University of Pretoria. She has qualified to compete in both the 100m and 200m breaststroke races in the Tokyo Olympics
First swimming memory? Water safety classes in pre-primary school. We had to jump into the water with our clothes over our costumes and take our clothes off in the water.
How did it feel to win double Commonwealth gold at 20? When I won the first medal [the 200m breaststroke] and saw my time, I was shocked and chuffed. I was the first South African woman in eight years to earn a Commonwealth medal in the pool. What an honour! When I then won the 100m breaststroke, I didn’t realise I’d set a new African time and broken Penny Heyns’ record: I hadn’t set out to do that. Realising her record had been standing for just about my whole life was an amazing, overwhelming moment.
After the medal ceremony, you have to walk around the pool with your medals. I was overwhelmed for the first ceremony but my memory of the second is the rousing music and my parents dancing in the stands. My dad’s voice was gone and my mom had no more tears left. Such a happy moment.
What contact did you have with Penny afterwards? We saw each other face to face at the national championships in South Africa a week later. One of the great things about her is that she still goes to them. She was just so encouraging, as she always is.
Tatjana was the first South African woman in eight years to win a Commonwealth medal in the pool. ‘Realising I had broken the record of Penny Heyns which had been standing just about my whole life was overwhelming,’ she says
Hard lockdown stopped Tatjana’s Olympic training schedule for a number of weeks. ‘It was really difficult,’ she says
Your 100m and 200m breaststroke races in the Tokyo Olympics? I have high hopes!
Has Covid-19 affected your training? Initially the hard lockdown in 2020 was really difficult with me not being able to train for a few weeks. And then not being able to go to an Olympics for which we had trained so hard! But then I realised health and lives are so much more important. Fortunately, during most of the pandemic our pool facilities at Tuks [Pretoria] University have remained open, and we’ve continued to train as if the Olympics is going ahead.
Despite her rigorous training schedule, Tatjana managed to graduate with a B Comm in Financial Sciences from Pretoria University in 2020… and promptly dropped her certificate in the pool when jumping for a photo!
Your training? Every week I do eight two-hour swimming sessions and two one-hour gym sessions. It takes discipline!
‘I can’t think of a nicer person to break my record… It’s really hard to win a gold medal but I think even more impressive is her humility’ — South African Olympic champion and swimming legend, Penny Heyns
Training diet? Egg and toast for breakfast. Veg, protein and carbs for lunch and dinner. I tend to eat the same things because I know they work for me.
Ultimate comfort food? Carrot cake. I eat healthily during the week but if I want ice cream or chocolate I don’t feel bad about it. It gives me extra energy!
We’re not sure whether Tatjana’s opted for a veg smoothie or a sugar-riddled milkshake here. But when you do 18 hours of hectic exercise a week, we suspect it may be a little irrelevant…
How do you cope with the competitive pressure? It can be hard. I find that I do best when I focus on myself and ignore the expectations of others.
You and God? Even winning Commonwealth gold is nothing compared to how God makes me feel. I don’t think we have any concept of how great He is.
How do you connect with God? I take time alone with Him. I go to a church called Every Nation, and walk out filled with energy and the sense that nothing in my week can defeat me. I feel alive in His presence.
Tatjana: ‘Even winning Commonwealth gold is nothing compared to how God makes me feel. I don’t think we have any concept of how great He is. I walk out of church filled with energy and the sense that nothing in my week can defeat me.’
What would you do if you couldn’t swim again? That’s a hard question! I’ve seen people who have to stop but don’t want to and I can’t imagine how that feels.
Worst swimming moment? There’s not a single moment I think of as my worst. Sometimes you have a bad gala and it can be difficult to build yourself up afterwards, but that’s part of training.
‘The competitive pressure can be hard. I find that I do best when I focus on myself and ignore the expectations of others,’ says Tatjana
People who’ve inspired me are… Obviously Penny Heyns! Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Chad le Clos because I know how much hard work it takes to achieve what they have. But I’ve never wanted to emulate anybody. I’m not them and I like finding my own way.
Guilty pleasure? I don’t have time for one! Even series binge-watching is a foreign concept to me.
Make me president and I’d… Rock at it!
What do you feel about being South African? Proud.