Cape Town - Team South Africa got off to a golden Commonwealth Games start as Henri Schoeman won the men’s triathlon event on Thursday’s first day of competition at Gold Coast, Australia.
According to the Team SA website, Schoeman shrugged off a dreadful start to his year, when he was incorrectly accused of doping at the Rio Olympics, and stood proud after a victory in the men’s triathlon.
The tiny Durbanite dominated the 750m swim, 20km cycle and 5km run from start to finish, winning in 52:31 – seven seconds clear of local favourite Jake Birtwhistle.
An electric burst of pace early into the run saw him sail clear after the race had got off to a stormy start as a squall lashed down for the swim leg.
And now, at long last the spotlight shines fairly and squarely on Schoeman.
‘At the Rio Olympics, despite getting bronze, it felt like I was in the shadow of the Brownlee brothers - to the extent that one photographer even asked me to mind out of the way as he wanted to take a picture of them!
‘Then even my win at Cozumel, Mexico later that year I felt in the shadow again after the publicity surrounding the Brownlees (when Alistair had to help Jonny over the line when he collapsed and Schoeman breezed past both to claim the victory).
‘Finally, finally I know the spotlight is truly on me, first in Abu Dhabi earlier this year (when he led from start to finish) and now here… and it feels great.
‘It’s just fantastic and I have to dedicate it to my country, my true supporters, my girlfriend (Franzel Allen) and my family.’
Asked whether gold here eclipsed his Rio bronze, he thought for a second. ‘Commonwealth Games are a big thing for South Africa so this has to be right up there with Rio.’
Now attention switches to Saturday’s team relay where Team South Africa will be hoping to emulate or even better the silver they won in Glasgow. Has he got enough in the tank for another golden performance?
‘Oh definitely,’ was the reply.
Story of the race was that Schoeman came out of the water in third spot behind Alistair Brownlee and Tayler Reid of New Zealand. A breakaway group of six soon formed on the bike and Schoeman boxed clever by staying out of trouble.
He dismounted fourth, swapped bike for running shoes, and within a kilometre of the transition was running free in first place.
‘I thought the guys might take it easily on the first lap of the run so I made a little surge and saw there was a gap, so I kept pushing a bit harder because I knew a guy like Jake and soon I was able to run at my own pace.’
So much so that as he entered the finishing arena he was first able to execute an attempted high-five [it didn’t quite come off] with countryman Richard Murray as he celebrated down the blue carpet.
Murray went on to end sixth, 33 seconds off the pace while the third member of the men’s outfit, Wian Sullwald, was 20th (3:59 back).
Murray was one spot behind Schoeman in Rio and for a while on the run it looked like he may drag himself into contention again. ‘I buried myself on the bike,’ explained Murray afterward. ‘Just like in Rio there were only two or three of us who were prepared to go hard, Jake was one of them.
‘Obviously I didn’t want to leave myself with too much to do on the run so I tried to keep the pace as hot as possible.’
But he paid for his labour. ‘On the first lap of the run I felt quite good and thought I’d catch the guys up front but then when I wanted to put the hammer down there was nothing there.
‘Still, I can’t be upset. I gave it my best.’
Also with an eye on the relay he said: ‘It was smart that our girls didn’t kill themselves after they realised they weren’t in podium contention,’
Sullwald, a top 10 finisher at the 2010 Youth Olympic and two years later the world junior champion, was fairly high up in the swim leg and looked good on the bike but dropped back drastically on the bike.
‘I’ve been sick for two weeks now and just had nothing. I was actually flat from the get-go,’ was his hurried explanation.