SA swimmers adjust as Olympics is postponed

Tatjana Schoenmaker and Zane Waddell share how they are handling uncertainty during the coronavirus pandemic and the postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games by a year.

While the world figures its way out of the Covid-19 pandemic, potential Olympians across the globe face plenty of upheaval. After a period of intense pressure, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) resolved at an emergency meeting on Tuesday 24 March to postpone the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo to 2021.

The 2020 Olympics were scheduled to run from 24 July to 9 August in Japan. Now all that’s certain is that the global sporting showpiece has been moved to “no later than [northern hemisphere] summer 2021”, with specific dates yet to be announced. Like so many athletes around the world, South Africa’s swimmers have endured a tricky time. 

For those based in the country, like South Africa’s top female swimmer, Tatjana Schoenmaker, it’s been business (almost) as usual. But for the United States-based contingent, which includes 50m backstroke world champion Zane Waddell, it’s been far from it.

28 July 2019: Zane Waddell celebrates winning gold in the men's 50m backstroke at the Fina World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. (Photograph by Clive Rose/ Getty Images)
28 July 2019: Zane Waddell celebrates winning gold in the men’s 50m backstroke at the Fina World Swimming Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. (Photograph by Clive Rose/ Getty Images)

Both were supposed to book tickets to their first Olympic Games at the SA National Swimming Championships in Durban from 4 to 9 April. But like the rest of the world’s sporting events, these Olympic trials have been postponed indefinitely.

“It’s been a roller coaster, especially with this virus and everything. But we’re trying to stay positive. We’re still carrying on with training,” explained 22-year-old Schoenmaker before the announcement of the 21-day national lockdown, which runs from 27 March to 16 April.

“A lot of our big competitions like Olympic trials were cancelled, so it’s tough because we were working on a goal to see where we were for the year, but now we have to go back to capacity and base training. But I enjoy this time of the season because it’s more relaxed swimming, so I couldn’t be happier.”

It’s been very different on the other side of the Atlantic. Waddell comes from Bloemfontein in the Free State, but is studying and swimming at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He chose to stay in the US for fear of not being able to return.

Training during lockdown 

“I am unable to train. Virtually every single swimming pool in the US is closed, so I am doing a ton of running and dry land-orientated workouts,” he said.

“I was super excited to hopefully qualify for my first Olympic Games in a few weeks, yet the right decision was to postpone the trials in order to fight the coronavirus. The virus has greatly affected my training and plans. Where I am right now, everything is closed, from restaurants, bars to gyms and all swimming pools. I’ve had to become creative with my workouts in quarantine [lockdown, he hasn’t tested positive for the coronavirus] and to say the least, my running game has improved.

“I have self-isolated and am not going to any public spaces. I have holed up inside and am just trying to stay healthy,” added Waddell, who was the only South African to claim gold at last year’s Fina World Swimming Championships.

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Following President Cyril Ramaphosa’s announcement on Monday 23 March, Schoenmaker will now be facing a similar scenario. But she welcomed the IOC finally making a decision to postpone the Games.

“It is obviously not the best when you’ve been working 15 years for this one moment. It’s your childhood dream, but it’s still going to happen so I’m feeling positive about it,” she said.

“It’s not a waiting game anymore, so that’s nice – when you’re in lockdown and weeks are going by without training and you’re left wondering – so for me it’s just amazing to know that they have announced it and there will be a postponement.

“Now I just want us to get healthy and for South Africa to get through this lockdown, and through that we can only be positive. There’s no need to be panicked and stressed. We’re doing this together and together we’ll get out of it,” said Schoenmaker.

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This year, the Pretoria swimmer was looking to build on her breakthrough performance at last year’s Fina World Swimming Championships in South Korea, where she set a new national and continental record on her way to claiming a silver medal in the 200m breaststroke. She was the first female South African swimmer in history to win a medal at a long course (50m pool) World Championships. Even double Olympic swimming champion Penny Heyns didn’t achieve that.

Schoenmaker holds the South African and African records in all three breaststroke events, the 50m, 100m and 200m.

Despite all the uncertainty, her goals remain unchanged.

“Difficulty wise, I think it would be the same as World Champs, reaching the podium at the Olympics. Obviously, we don’t know who the top swimmers are of each country. It might be two different girls to before, because the US has quite a strong group of girls that could qualify. So it depends on who comes first or second at their trials. I might see new faces in the same race. 

“For me, it’s just to try and make a final. If I swim a PB [personal best time], I can try and make the final. And I’ve always believed if you have a lane, you have a chance.”

Getting an edge over the competition

Schoenmaker said “it’s tough to say” if she’s faster now than she was last year. “I think when you’re there at the Olympics, it’s the vibe and the experience and stuff. Your adrenaline gets pumping and you always end up maybe having that edge. Swimming locally, you can’t really put yourself in that situation, so I’m just trying to keep my times consistent. At the moment, I’m very consistent. I wouldn’t say that I’m better than at that time, but consistency is key. So if I stay consistent, I might just have that extra edge at the end.”

With success in 2019, which apart from the silver in South Korea also included double gold at the World Student Games, came plenty of accolades – among them being named Sportswoman of the Year and Sports Star of the Year at the SA Sports Awards. It’s something the double Commonwealth Games champion is still trying to get her head around.

“It still feels unreal. I can’t imagine that I’m the top sportsperson in South Africa. It feels weird. It doesn’t feel like it was me. So when people say that and you think back, it’s like, what? Like, the best in South Africa? No, that’s crazy. I think every time I win any award, I’m just super grateful and humbled.”

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With the awards came a R100 000 cheque to donate to Schoenmaker’s charity of choice. She selected Precious Blessings in Pretoria, which provides for abandoned, abused, neglected and sick babies and toddlers.

“The heart behind them was just so pure,” she said. “I knew it was something that God would love because He’s very in that place and in that charity. Their vision and their view on how to tackle things and how to build this charity is very God-based. That’s the one thing I love the most. And it’s amazing to see confirmation of that. The people there would do absolutely anything for those children, just to live in God’s will. To see how much of their time they are willing to put in, and you just know it’s for a good cause…”

Schoenmaker’s faith is something that is integral to how she approaches everything in life: training, competition and even the challenges brought about by the coronavirus pandemic.

“If I ever feel like I’m stressed out, the first thing I go to is worship music. That’s something that calms me down. To know that there is a bigger purpose for what I’m doing and that it’s not about my plans, that it’s about God’s plans. I’m there just to use the talent that He gave me, and try and fulfil the purpose that He wants me to.

“I saw this now with the trials being cancelled. It ended up working out perfectly for us because now I can get a week break and we can work on capacity again, so it didn’t disadvantage us. In the moment you get a massive shock and stuff, but in the end you can just see that it happens for a reason.”

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Waddell is also coming to terms with the IOC’s decision, having been in sensational form and already achieving numerous personal best times on the US college circuit this season.

“It obviously hurts me deeply that the Olympics had to be postponed, especially considering I was in the best form in my life. But in my opinion, it is the absolute right decision. Covid-19 is no joke and leaders around the world need to take extra caution,” he said.

“The way President Ramaphosa has dealt with the situation in South Africa makes me proud. He is certainly doing his best to keep all South Africans safe. In the meantime, I have refocused on preparing for Tokyo 2021. This gives me an extra year to improve my craft and put myself in the absolute best position to succeed in Tokyo. One message I have for everyone is please stay indoors and do your part in preventing Covid-19 from spreading.”

Schoenmaker added: “It’s tough. It’s definitely a new challenge. But what’s nice about it is that it’s a learning curve. You always face obstacles and challenges, and it’s how we approach it and how we work around it.

“My message to South Africans would be stay home and be responsible. We have to work together. It is obviously not an ideal situation. Nobody wants to be stuck in their houses for 21 days … Keep safe and the most important is stay positive, keep the spirits going and find the joy in every day. Don’t see it as a punishment and don’t feel like you’re a victim. We’re all in this together.” 

Organisers have suggested that a 2021 Olympic Games could act as a “beacon of hope to the world during troubled times” and that the Olympic flame could become “the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present”. 

It may sound rather optimistic at present, but the world could certainly do with some hope and light right now.

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