Olympic champion and world record-holder Tatjana Schoenmaker received a hero’s welcome when she landed at OR Tambo in Johannesburg on Monday.
CAPE TOWN – Tatjana Schoenmaker says the reality of her being an Olympic champion and world record-holder hasn’t sunk in yet, but she is already thinking about the 2024 Paris Games.
The 24-year-old, who clinched a gold medal in the 200m breaststroke – to go with a silver in the 100m – was given a warm welcome upon arrival at the OR Tambo International Airport in Johannesburg on Tuesday afternoon.
Family and friends, as well as Minister of Sport Nathi Mthethwa and Sascoc officials, were on hand to greet Schoenmaker, with limited numbers of people allowed inside the airport due to Covid-19.
Mthethwa presented Schoenmaker with a bunch of flowers, and she was flanked by her coach Rocco Meiring and the rest of the Team South Africa swimming contingent.
Thank you @TRSchoenmaker for reigniting patriotism and reinstalling hope in us all during this difficult time. Not only have you elevated the African nation, you have made history! 🇿🇦#TeamSA #WorldRecord pic.twitter.com/QzSj9m5VtA
— Min. Nathi Mthethwa (@NathiMthethwaSA) August 2, 2021
“Thank you for everyone that’s here today. Really makes the moment extra special. I feel like it hasn’t sunk in yet, but maybe it has today – a little,” the University of Pretoria athlete said.
“Just, thank you for all the support and for me, it was just to go out there and give my best. Through my achievements, I hope I could’ve give someone some hope – obviously knowing our country was going through such a tough time.
“If I could’ve just give that little bit of hope … As we know, sport unites people. But to not just rely on the athletes to unite us, but to make it a decision as a country and get together, and unite by ourselves. Hopefully I could just give that a little boost!
“For me, it was just, through my swimming, show God’s love, and if people see me, just really feel His presence and experience His love. So, if that was what I was able to do, then I’ve achieved everything I did.”
Meiring was at poolside and couldn’t hide his delight that five years of hard work had resulted in two Olympic medals.
“I don’t think I’ve ever – and I have coached for 33 years – I don’t think I have ever put anybody through hell like I did with Tatjana,” he said.
“It’s been five years of absolute hell for her, and many days, I felt terrible for doing it to her. But we are in a very difficult sport, and the high performance is a moving target.
“Many lessons were learnt during the Covid times, speaking to international coaches, and people are going to be even faster in Paris. We will have to seriously rethink how we do things in swimming in this country, and we will have to have financial support – no question about it. It’s going to get much more difficult to produce the goods.
“Tatjana’s been blessed by God with exceptional talent. She is a very shy and reserved person, but if there’s anybody I need to go to war with, I would choose her first.
“I am very lucky to be part of the team at the University of Pretoria, who helped her, and I want to thank her family for the support they gave, and the trust they had in me. She is a tribute to the Schoenmaker family and parents.”
Lwandile Simelane, the first vice-president of Sascoc, added that Schoenmaker was an inspiration to female swimmers in Mzansi. “It was unbelievably important, for those who don’t know, Team South Africa went to Rio without a single female swimmer. It shows how bright the future is for young girls in the pool,” Simelane said.
“It’s exciting for us that the best performance resulted in a world record and gold medal. There are people who like to say there is a reason why sport is on the back page of the newspaper. You hear all the doom and gloom, and then you smile at the back page, and that is exactly what our athletes have done for us.
“I’m sure I woke up my entire neighbourhood when I was screaming for all of her races and everybody’s performances in Tokyo. It’s massive, and it warms all of our hearts.”
Schoenmaker will take a break for a while before she begins racing again, but she has her eye on more medals at the 2024 Paris Olympics.
“I feel like it hasn’t (sunk in yet). I think it sunk in a little when you finally get to come home and you actually celebrate it with the people you love,” she said.
“I think it might never sink in really – which might be good, because I think even just being at the Olympics was an amazing achievement for everyone, and I still think it hasn’t sunk in for any of us. It’s over now, and now we have to focus for 2024.
“I obviously want to go faster one day, but it is a challenging time just to break that world record. I think it was standing from 2013, so it was a tough time to break.”