When Tatjana Schoenmaker takes to the blocks for the 200m breaststroke final in Tokyo, there’ll be at least one man in Mamelodi – 13 500km away – beaming with pride. Every day for the past 30-odd years, Abel Mokoena, 64, has been making sure the University of Pretoria’s swimming pool is in a pristine condition, ready for the elite athletes who construct their Olympic dreams there.
In better-resourced countries, there would be a team of people doing the work he does, but Mokoena does it alone and loves it. “I’m the pool superintendent. I look after everything here,” he explains from his tiny office situated just to the side of the pool deck. “When there are galas, I arrange the gala things – equipment, chemicals. I have to keep the pool in good standard.
“I ask when I need help, but at the moment I’m alone. I manage this place alone, with [Tuks head coach] Rocco [Meiring] helping me now and then. He gives me instructions on what he needs and then I do that.
“I enjoy my job no matter what needs to be done. It’s a dirty job sometimes – we have to clean and do all those things – but I don’t mind. I love what I’m doing so I do it well.”
Mokoena started out as a construction worker, but he secured a job at the university in 1984 as a cleaner in the sports centre. “They then promoted me to come down here to deal with the swimming pool in the early 1990s. The one guy that was working here passed away and another one was very sick, so they asked me to come and assist here. So I grabbed the chance and I stayed.”
Moving to work at the pool meant Mokoena had to learn to swim, with the university providing lessons to the staff. “They said I couldn’t work at a pool if I couldn’t swim,” he explained with a laugh. “So I learnt to swim properly when I was about 29.
“I didn’t know anything about swimming pools before that. I learnt it here. It’s very good to work at a university because you learn a lot of things. They give you that chance to improve yourself and to get experience. I came here as a helper and they showed me what to do, so I caught up and that’s why I am where I am today.”
Describing his daily routine, the father of four explains: “Every day when I come to work I have to check the water, take the temperature, add chemicals. In summer it’s not a big problem, but in winter you have to maintain the temperature at about 26 to 28 degrees [Celcius], not less than that. Because the swimmers start very early – at 5.30am – and in winter it’s cold at that time, so we have to make sure the water is warm enough and know that we’re safe.
“The other important thing is that the swimmers mustn’t be infected. You have to wash the pool very carefully and use chemicals to get rid of the bacteria. We have to keep them healthy. They are very important to us because they’re going to the Olympics. We are very proud of them and I have to make them proud as well by maintaining the pool.”
Integral part of the team
The swimmers and coaches are indeed exceptionally proud of Mokoena and grateful for the work he does. He is at an age now where he should be contemplating retirement, but that’s unlikely to happen any time soon. And he’s happy with that, provided he remains healthy.
“I think I pulled Abel out of retirement three times because he is such a critical cog in the wheel,” says Meiring. “Often people like that are taken for granted, but if they’re not there it’s a catastrophe. Abel’s main role is to make sure that we have a facility that we can train in, which is critical. From water purification, heating… the whole facility is basically his responsibility.
“You would normally have a pool staff of three people for a facility like this, but he does it all alone. The swimmers all know him and Abel is part of the team. The nice thing is when we have competitions or when we have our intervarsities, you can see how his heart and soul is in the performance of the Tuks team.”
Having worked at the pool for over 30 years, Mokoena is all too aware that the Tuks team – and the sport of swimming in general – are still largely dominated by white athletes.
“It’s changing a bit because here we have a few Black people training… I talk to them, I’ve told them that I want to see them at the Olympics as well, not only whites, because that’s not so nice for us. So they have to pull up their socks and make it – make us proud also.
“We will one day see a Black swimmer with a medal because Rocco is a good coach. I always watch him every morning when it’s busy here. I take my time and watch what he’s doing, and he’s a very good coach. That’s why we have three or four swimmers who are going to the Olympics, which means he produces the best.”
Mokoena has long admired the way that Meiring works and even has a few suggestions about where his coaching skills could be employed elsewhere. “I love soccer and I wish one day that Rocco can help Bafana Bafana. He must go there and train them a bit so they can become strong, and then maybe they can make it in the World Cup. They can learn from the swimmers.”
Always around and supportive
Meiring has a good laugh at the suggestion. “I don’t know about that. I didn’t know that he keeps an eye on me, but I’ll take it as a compliment. It’s a team effort and for me it’s important that the real game changers like Abel get the recognition they deserve, because they are so important in the ultimate success of a swimmer and of a team.”
Schoenmaker, who is one of South Africa’s top medal prospects at the Tokyo Olympics, also expresses her gratitude for Mokoena’s efforts.
“Abel is a massive help to us. He makes sure everything runs smoothly and that the pool is crystal clear with perfect conditions. He also helps us with the covers – and with a 50m pool that’s a massive task,” she says. “He does all this work, day in and day out, with a lovely smile and always a willing hand. I’m so grateful to know Abel is always around.”
As for the upcoming Olympic Games, Mokoena is convinced Schoenmaker will return from Tokyo with a medal in hand. “We need it and she will bring it. She is working very hard and I hope God can help her to bring it again. I’m very proud of that little girl. I saw her from when she was young,” he says of the 23-year-old.
“I’m very excited about it because it makes the university to be on top, so that’s also why I work hard to encourage the swimmers. When they see the pool is clean and the water is warm, they also work harder.
“I also talk to the swimmers a lot. Many of them have grown up in front of me. Roland Schoeman and Cameron van der Burgh – they’ve all trained here. They are all my friends. I remember watching Roland winning a medal at the Olympics and I became very happy because I used to see him every day when he came to train here.
“So I have to watch them all on TV when they are at the Olympics, because they use the pool here and I have to get some results.”