She won double gold at the Commonwealth Games this year, beating a record set by South African heroine Penny Heyns that had stood for 19 years. She’s one of South Africa’s top medal hopes for the 2020 Olympics. She was named Newcomer of the Year at the 2018 SA Sports Awards. She’s an African record holder and she has to get in the water every single day, no matter how she feels. Who is this athlete, now considered South Africa’s top woman swimmer? SHIRLEY FAIRALL found out
TATJANA SCHOENMAKER (21) grew up in Roodepoort. She moved schools to TuksSport High in Pretoria at the age of 15, and is currently studying financial sciences at the University of Pretoria
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.
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
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.
Your training? Every week I do eight two-hour swimming sessions and two one-hour gym sessions. It takes discipline!
Your 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.
‘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
Ultimate comfort food? At the moment, 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!
How 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.
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…
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 Christian Revival Church and walk out filled with energy and the sense that nothing in my week can defeat me. I feel alive in His presence.
Make me President and I’d… Rock at it!
What do you feel about being South African? Proud.
Current swimming goal? I have high hopes for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Worst swimming moment and how you coped? 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.
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’
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.
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. I guess I would stay fit but focus on my studies. I wouldn’t like it though…