Cape Town - In an exclusive interview, TATJANA SCHOENMAKER talks about setting the standard in female swimming in South Africa, how she remains a home-based champion and her aims for Tokyo 2020.
Sport24 asked: How would you sum up your success in recent months?
Tatjana Schoenmaker: It’s insane to know that I am a World Championship silver medallist. I am blessed beyond measure and the achievement still hasn’t sunk in. After the 200m breaststroke final it felt as though I had won a medal at nationals, but then I said to myself: “No Tatjana, I think you need to realise how big this is!” Looking back, when thinking of winning a medal for South Africa all I know is that every 10 minutes I start crying. It was definitely the craziest July I have ever had – ending with four gold medals, one silver medal, two African records and one World Cup record. I am so grateful for every single person who supported me and helped me get to where I am today. It’s funny to hear some say that I have transformed myself into South Africa’s top female swimmer. I was just trying to swim my races and get as close as possible to my personal best. I believe that you shouldn’t wait for an opportunity, you should create it and if you’ve got a lane, you’ve got a chance.
Sport24 asked: How do you make it work as a home-based champion?
Tatjana Schoenmaker: I like being based in South Africa and I am very happy where I am right now. The coach-swimmer relationship between Rocco Meiring and myself is good and I’m still studying towards a degree in financial sciences, so I can’t travel as much as someone like Chad le Clos does. I’m definitely happy with the training facilities at my disposal at Tuks University, but it’s tough in the winter because an outdoor pool is not always the best when temperatures only reach single digits. The worst part is that I had to wake up really early and dive into the ice cold water at 5.30am when it was three degrees outside. It was a tough month of training ahead of the World Championships, but I got through it. It does look amazing training in Italy like Chad does, but I like being close to home. In terms of my studies, it’s my last semester so hopefully I graduate next year. Having been away competing, I have four weeks of catch-up work to get through, but fortunately I am in South Africa for the rest of the semester so I won’t be missing too much more. I’m definitely going to focus on trying to pass the exams and finishing up my degree. Next year, I will take a gap year to compete at the Tokyo Olympics and might only do a short course which I find interesting. My thinking behind earning a degree is to have something to fall back on, but my main focus is obviously still swimming.
Sport24 asked: Which sportspeople do you look to for inspiration?
Tatjana Schoenmaker: I am inspired by any amazing swimmer to be honest. I look up to current swimmers Chad le Clos and Caeleb Dressel and past stars Michael Phelps and Penny Heyns. Penny is very busy with her FINA obligations (she is a FINA Athletes Committee and Bureau member) but she did message me congratulations on “another world-class swim” and it was so special for her to hand out our medals. As a professional athlete, I know how much work they put in and the amount of sacrifice required. I can see it took a lot for them to make it to the top and that inspires me. They are very inspirational, but there isn’t someone who I can say I want to be exactly like. I really want to create my own way in swimming. Attaining success makes me believe in myself more and gives me the confidence. It tells me that I am able to achieve certain things and I have to believe in myself. I also draw inspiration from my biggest support base which is my family, my friends, swimming club, my coach at Tuks, Rocco, and my fellow teammates. Everyone’s support is special and equal to me.
Sport24 asked: How do female swimmers handle negative critique?
Tatjana Schoenmaker: Women are already more emotional than men so to hear negative comments and to see that many South Africans don’t really believe in what we can do is quite tough. However, we have definitely shown them that our group of nine girls who competed at the World Championships are becoming so much better. We are trying to give our best and hopefully we are going to have a bigger women’s team heading to the Olympics than the men. However, in terms of team South Africa it’s not a battle of the sexes. It’s all for one and one for all. We were all extremely supportive of each other’s achievements in South Korea. The team camaraderie at World Championships was something special. And even at the 2018 Commonwealth Games, I was actually surprised at how amazing the support was and we are just trying to keep that spirit going. It’s always nice taking a seat in the stands with your teammates after you have raced and seeing everyone being so happy for what you have done in your races. Zane Waddell, who won gold in the backstroke, wrote that it was “such an awesome experience” and that he “wouldn’t have done it with any other team.” Every single moment of representing South Africa makes me happy and proud to be South African. I love our national anthem and it’s always nice hearing it whenever you podium.
Sport24 asked: What events will you focus on at the 2020 Olympics?
Tatjana Schoenmaker: The aim is to compete in the 100m and 200m breaststroke events. I obviously want to do great in both of them. I don’t want the one discipline to be way better than the other one so I am going to try my best to do as well as I can in both. Winning gold at the Commonwealth Games was good for me, but I definitely think the Olympics will be a step up. It has been nice for me to have stepping stones from the World Student Games to the Commonwealth Games and World Championships. I was fortunate enough to have that build-up and now the next one would be the Olympics and I am super excited. As my coach has said, going forward it’s all about marginal gains. I didn’t go to World Champs with any expectations and I just wanted to get my personal bests to know that I am actually on track and that things are going to plan and I’m moving forward. The silver medal at the World Championships in Gwangju really was a big bonus. As far as the Olympic Games are concerned, I hope to swim even faster and so far it’s looking good. In terms of my biggest competitors in the 200m breaststroke, I would say it would be Yuliya Efimova and Sydney Pickrem at the moment judging from the World Championships. However, there are also other girls from the US who were not in South Korea, but have been swimming fast times. As such, Tokyo will present even more competition. I just want to swim my best and it’s about making personal improvements. Where that takes me I don’t know, but if I can swim my personal bests and go to the Olympic Games and race the races I want to then I will be super happy with that. I’m setting my sights on the Olympics, Commonwealth Games and the World Championships after that. I will go with the flow and see where my career takes me (Schoenmaker is 22 years old). I don’t have a set age when I want to stop, but don’t know if I will still be swimming over the age of 30. Maybe I will draw the line there.