Tatjana Schoenmaker: Olympic success still 'unreal' for South African

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Tatjana Schoenmaker celebrates with her gold medal at the Tokyo OlympicsTatjana Schoenmaker won South Africa's first Olympic gold medal in women's swimming since 1996

Despite Tatjana Schoenmaker's abiding faith, even the South African swimmer finds her achievements this year somewhat surreal after she returned from the Tokyo Olympics with two medals and one world record.

Her bountiful returns came five years after missing out on the Rio Games, having failed to qualify by just one-hundredth of a second, so making success all the sweeter.

Her 200m breaststroke triumph proved to be South Africa's sole gold medal in Japan, and was her country's first female medal in an Olympic pool since the great Penny Heyns took bronze in 2000.

"It really still feels unreal," Schoenmaker, 24, told BBC Sport Africa.

"You dream as a little girl to achieve something that crazy at the Olympics, but I don't think you believe it could actually happen.

"It just feels like a dream. You work for 16 years to get there and the moment was over so quickly. It does feel a bit weird."

After five years of relentless training, Schoenmaker's emotions came out after her 200m victory, screaming when it dawned she had broken the world record with a time of 2:18.95 before breaking into tears.

"When I looked at the board the second time, that's when I realised - 'wait, I just broke the world record'," recalled the BBC African Sports Personality of the Year nominee.

"My first reaction was very dull for someone who'd won and broken the world record, but I definitely made up for it with that second reaction."

Further tears followed in the medal ceremony.

"My coach actually jokes with me and says I need to get a tissue sponsor," she said.

"It's not always nice racing because it hurts and there are nerves. But at least when you're [on the podium], everything is set aside and it's just you focusing on singing that song and putting your country's flag up high. Whenever you sing your national anthem, you have so much pride."

Divine inspiration through set-backs

Meet Tatjana Schoenmaker - BBC African Sports Personality of the Year nominee

Swimming has not always been so straightforward for Schoenmaker, who came incredibly close to quitting the sportexternal-link in 2016 after her Rio qualification failure.

She stopped enjoying the sport but rebounded in impressive style, amassing multiple national and continental records, two Commonwealth Games titles in 2018 and a 2019 World Championships silver medal.

Today, she accepts the set-back ultimately benefitted her.

"I look back who I was - a 19-year-old, I really had no experience at all - and maybe it was just really not good for me to go [to Rio]," she says.

"My character had to be built. And so looking back, I don't regret that. It makes you realise that God really has a plan for everyone."

Schoenmaker's devout faith is what drives her.

"I was blessed with an amazing talent," she said. "And I want to use this talent that God gave me to try and glorify his name, so that inspires me every day."

Her devotion is so strong that unlike others who psyche themselves up with pumping tunes, she does so by listening to gospel.

"I know people want to listen to this zone music - like Eminem - but I really get focused when I listen to worship music," she explains. "It also reminds you who you are doing it for."

'Belief in myself was there'

Schoenmaker set an Olympic record in her first race in Tokyo, clocking 1:04.82 in her 100m heat, which allowed her to "break the ice" and swim with complete freedom from then on.

She eventually took silver over the shorter distance, with her experience laying the platform for her 200m success three days later.

"For my 100 final, I was so focused on trying to stay ahead of the world record holder [Lilly King] that I didn't even notice the girl next to me."

It is a measure of Schoenmaker's Christian nature that she appears genuinely delighted for American Lydia Jacobs, the 17-year-old who clinched gold.

"I was just so happy for her - it was such an amazing race. I went in there [ranked] seventh or eighth, so walking away with a medal was definitely not what I thought I'd be doing.

Tatjana Schoenmaker after winning the 200m breaststroke in Tokyo in world-record timeSchoenmaker showed her emotions after winning the Olympic 200m breaststroke final in world-record time

"Going into the 200m, I could only swim my own race. I had nothing to prove to anyone or myself because I knew I was able to do well. My belief in myself was there."

Schoenmaker is now hoping to give others belief after creating a foundation to provide funds for South Africans who cannot swim but also those who excel at it.

"If I could help someone get that basic skill of swimming, especially those that can't afford it, that would be great, especially because we have a lot of drowning problems in township areas," she said.

She also wants to help those dreaming of emulating her in future.

"Sometimes if you get selected for a world championships, you have to pay a large amount of money and a lot of people can't - so then they stop that dream because they literally can't pay," she says.

"I would financially support them to experience even a little bit of what I've experienced."

A self-confessed swimming nut - who enjoys it "not for the medals and the records, but just loving doing it every day" - Schoenmaker's best moment of 2021 pays tribute to her journey during the last Olympic cycle.

"The highlight is just seeing how much you have grown personally and spiritually. The next challenge is: how can I improve? I'm excited to see where my swimming is going to go."

Interview with Tatjana Schoenmaker by Victoire Eyoum.

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