Tatjana Schoenmaker at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games. Photo by Wessel Oosthuizen / SASPA)
Tatjana Schoenmaker became the symbol of the resurgence of South African women’s swimming after her 100/200m breaststroke double at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
Local women have struggled to compete at the highest level over the last few years, with the country failing to send any female swimmers to both the 2015 FINA World Championships and the 2016 Rio Olympic Games.
Schoenmaker first showed her real potential two years ago as an 18-year-old when she posted Olympic qualifying times in the build-up to the national trials.
She was left heartbroken, however, when she missed the qualifying time by 0.01 seconds in the 200m breaststroke final at the trials in Durban.
Schoenmaker bounced back with aplomb last year by becoming the first SA woman to qualify for the World Championships since 2013.
Due to study constraints and managing her introduction to the international arena, she decided to go to the World Student Games in Taipei instead.
It ultimately paid off as she earned the 200m breaststroke silver medal with a new personal best of 2:24.61.
“World Champs was a much bigger environment, and Students was just a level lower, so I could get onto the podium a little bit easier while still swimming against top competition,” Schoenmaker said after returning home from the Gold Coast Games.
“I was still stressing about the person swimming against me in Taipei, but going into the Commonwealth Games, I was a lot more relaxed.
“I did stress about the expectations but I was a lot more relaxed than I had expected.”
Schoenmaker did not think she was an outlier but instead an example of the impending female swimming boom.
“I constantly had to answer questions about women’s swimming before the Commonwealth Games but we took one of the biggest female swimming teams,” Schoenmaker said.
“All of these girls are still very young. I was one of the oldest swimmers, and I am still only 20 years old.
“There is a big gap between the current crop and (former) superstars… but we believe the tables are turning and we might see women winning more medals than the men.”
Schoenmaker’s emergence as South Africa’s princess of the pool would not have been possible had coach Rocco Meiring not identified her talent early on and invited her to attend the TuksSport High School in Pretoria.
“Rocco approached me at a gala and said he wanted me to come to the sports school but I didn’t want to go because I already made friends at Hoërskool Noordheuwel,” Schoenmaker said.
“It is cool to think he saw the potential in me and my times when I was just swimming three times a week.
“We have a great coach-swimmer relationship and it is great to know my coach believes in me not only when I am doing well but also when I am doing badly he still sees my potential.”