Tatjana Schoenmaker
South African swimming sensation, Tatjana Schoenmaker, is quickly becoming a household name as she continues to push boundaries, get faster and faster and trailblaze for women’s sport in SA. In 2019 she was named Sports Star of the Year as well as Sportswoman of the Year at the prestigious South African Sports Awards after her double gold medals at the World Student Games in Napoli (Italy) and then storming to a historic silver medal in the 200m Breaststroke final at the Fina World Championships in Gwangju (Korea). Tatjana’s times rank her in the top 10 fastest in the world and the best is yet to come with Tokyo 2020 a locked target in her sights

VS. caught up with Tatjana to discuss the impact of the COVID-19 lockdown on her training and how she is coping:

Q. Are you happy and healthy so far in the lockdown, or are you going a little crazy?

A. I am healthy, and I am happy. It does get to me sometimes. No one expected the lockdown to be this long, but it’s nice to know everyone is facing it together. I get to spend time with my family which I never got since high school. The last time I had real time with them and was in my house for so long was around Grade 9 (7 yrs ago). So there are positives! But there are definitely times that I get a little crazy because I just want to get out and do life. But that’s just not to be for now…

Q. What immediate swimming goals have the lockdown interrupted?

A. Swimming in general. Everyone is missing it! Some are lucky enough to have a pool they can use, some have a pool but it is just too cold, and others don’t have a pool at all so that’s the hardest. It is usually part of my day – 4 hours a day – so it is challenging not seeing your swimming family as well.

Q. Which events were you focused on but were cancelled?

A. Definitely SA Nationals – the Olympic Trials. Hopefully trying to get it this year, even though missing out the previous time was definitely meant to be. I am more ready now than I ever could have been before. So I am excited! I think it would have been nice to see where I was (at Nationals) even though I don’t know if I would have swum any great times. But it would have been nice to see where my times were in preparation for the Olympics.

Q. What have you done during your lockdown time (training/scouting/remote coaching) related to your sport?

A. A lot of land training. We do land-based training twice a week normally, so it is an adjustment to do it five times a week now. It is different but I have to try and keep fit. It is challenging because it’s just not the same as water but that is all I have been doing. Focusing on the cardio (running and rowing) and strength (gym work) to get the muscles ready for when we go back. Also focusing on the stuff I didn’t always have time for when I was swimming so much, such as flexibility. It really was getting bad and I think this was a perfect time to step back and start focusing on the smaller things.

Q. What have you done unrelated to your sport – new skills, hobbies – to stay busy?

A. I haven’t learned a new hobby. I think I have just been enjoying the time and trying to keep sane. I spent time really growing myself spiritually, so that was a definite bonus! I used a lot of my time to read my Bible and get spiritually stronger.

Q. How are you feeling about returning – are you anxious about getting the virus, your safety, etc.?

A. No. I am actually pretty excited! There is research out stating swimming is a “safer” sport since the chlorine seems to kill the virus. And I know I am healthy enough to hopefully fight off the virus. It would be a challenge though. I saw Cameron (van der Burgh), even with being so fit, struggled so it is still a very tough disease. I think the only thing I am maybe anxious about is maybe not knowing I have the disease and then visiting someone that is more likely to suffer more. By keeping some social distancing in the pool and being able to swim in the chlorine water we should be fine.

Q. Do you feel more positive about the future – has this time been constructive, or do you feel like you’ve lost some ground?

A. I think in the beginning I was very positive knowing that I was going to take a break anyway before getting ready to go full speed into the Olympics. But then it (Olympics) got postponed so now we obviously have more time to prepare. So, in a sense, I am very glad we had this extra time. I think for my mental state knowing we can’t get to the pool is really tough, but at least we have time. I am getting a little nervous as I haven’t been in the pool for so long and we usually swim for at least 12km per day for 5-6 days a week – just to swim a 2min race – well for me 2min 22s or 21s. It is something we HAVE to do. We HAVE to get into the water for all those hours and all those km to be able to swim a good race.

Q. Have you been monitoring what other swimmers have been up to?

A. No! I think you follow people on social media. Obviously, we can see the rest of the world is back to normal routine a bit more where we aren’t yet. But it is nice to see that everyone is still trying their best to stay fit and to be strong at this time and to be part of charities and helping out. It’s great to see all the sportsmen and sportswomen coming up and standing strong, especially South African citizens in general.

Q. What are the plans to resume/when do you think training will be resumed?

A. At the moment it’s very unclear so we not sure. We just trying to stay positive and keep doing what we need to do, and what we can do, to the best of our ability. I am trying to embrace this land training. We know it’s not going to last forever so hopefully soon!

Q. How do you think training will be different in the future?

A. I think in the beginning it will be different. We lucky for the chlorine in a sense, but it will definitely be a bit different and phased in. We might be a lot fewer swimmers in the water at once, then only later be the full group. But I think in general we will obviously go back to normal eventually if we are all cautious and taking care of the responsibilities from our side. I don’t think anyone from this day on will just walk out there with no mask, no gloves, and no hand sanitizer. I think it’s a decision we all have to make to stay more hygienic and healthy. So it’s a change for everyone in SA permanently.

Q. What positives have come from this time?

A. A few for me. Spending time with my family, for SA as a whole being able to stand up together and go through this together. It isn’t an individual battle so yes we have our individual battles at home and during this pandemic, but ultimately we are all working together and it brings us together and unifies us. We lead such busy daily lives so to finally be able to or be forced to, stay at home and be able to reflect on what you need and what you need to work on really builds people’s character and mental strength in a sense. And I think appreciation as well. I think we going to appreciate things a lot more. We sometimes take things for granted – coffee with a friend or something like that. I think everyone in SA will be more grateful… Everyone in the world will be more grateful and appreciative of what they have

Q. What impact do you think the postponement will have on overall performances at the Olympics?

A. I don’t think any for me. I am fortunate enough to have a good support system and people around me that help me to plan everything in a way that I peak at the right time. I believe I will be in the right place at the right time. And obviously we just need to get into the pool as soon as possible. But I am lucky to have a team like I do.

Q. What advice do you have for your team/squadmates?

A. Just to hold on and be strong and know that we all in this together. It’s not something we dealing with alone. It is tough but its good to reflect on what you need and what you want when you get back. In a sense, this has really opened up some people’s eyes. Just stay strong and be there for one another. It’s not an easy place to be and even though it is lockdown – you don’t want to be on your phone 24-7 so communication does get a little difficult. Just stay strong and know you not alone

Q. First “normal” thing you’re planning on doing once lockdown ends?

A. Definitely going for some coffee and cake somewhere nice. Woolies Café would be my obvious favouite. But just going somewhere, maybe inviting a few friends, sitting there and really appreciating to be able to be out there sitting at a coffee place and being able to enjoy it with good company

Q. Silliest thing you’ve done in lockdown?

A. The first day of lockdown, it was a Friday, my alarm was still set. So I woke up and was confused because I was in my room at home and usually I’m in Pretoria. I got changed for swimming, but while I was getting changed I realized there was no swimming because of the lockdown… So that was pretty silly

Q. Favourite entertainment/place/activity you missing the most?

A. Coffee shops, little restaurants, friends, braaiing – just connecting with friends. I love my family time at the moment and I will never replace that – they can come too, I’m not tired of them yet – but just braaiing and catching up and appreciating friends

Q. Swimmer you admire the most?

A. I think any swimmer that has the passion and the drive to make it and love what they do. Any swimmer that has a passion and a love for the sport, has a glow that shines for everyone to see. I admire those swimmers. Anyone who loves doing what they do and helping others. Not being selfish but giving back and lending a helping hand.

Q. Funniest moment at a swim event?

A. It was the 100m Freestyle event at a gala and this guy was stretching in front of his block and his suit tore in the front and basically flew open in front of the whole crowd. And he had to run to try cover up with a towel – open for all to see. I’m not even sure if he even made it back to swim the race.

Q. Superstitions or rituals before a race?

A. I used to be very superstitious, in the sense of if I swing the one arm 5x I have to swing the other arm 5x too. Sometimes someone would talk to me and I had only done 3 – and all I would be thinking of is that I need to swing this arm another 2x. It was really bad! So no – no superstitions anymore. But I do have a bit of a ritual where I just jump a bit and do quite a high jump touching my toes, twisting my back a little, the usual swimmer slapping routine. Then definitely before that – getting myself into some Christian worship music to just be calm and in my own mindset, and just know I am there for a purpose and it’s His purpose!

Q. First thing your coach will say to you when you see him?

A. I think I will wear a specific costume just for Rocco. There is this Speedo costume that I have that has leopard prints on it. And I don’t know why but Rocco calls me “Leeutier”. So every single time I have this costume on he will just scream it out, like “Jaaaa Leeutier” or something about the jungle or “we in Africa now, we have a leopard on the run in the squad” or something like that. He will make some joke! He will mock me if I have this costume on – “ja don’t mess with Tatjana today she has her Leeutier costume on”… Ha ha so I will definitely wear that costume just so he can say something about it.

Thank you, Tatjana! All the best for your return to the pool.

Amy Bathgate
About the Author
Amy Bathgate is the Operations Manager at VS Sports, playing an integral role in product development, innovation, and design, and heading up a team of enthusiastic analysts working towards transforming the way sport is analyzed, scouted, and experienced. With over a decade of expertise in consulting, biomechanics, and performance analysis across various disciplines and levels, she understands that the little details make a big difference. One of her passions and specialties is swimming, and she assists and drives athletes and coaches to achieve their performance potentials using stroke and race analysis to better their understanding of the complexities of the sport in order to go faster and train and perform more efficiently. Amy is also a Dartfish Certified Instructor, certified in Functional Movement Screening, and a former lecturer at the University of Pretoria.