Swimming star Schoenmaker talks post-Olympic blues, rivalries and failure

Swimming star Tatjana Schoenmaker talks post-Olympic depression, pool rivalries, and learning from failure.

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South African Olympic swimmer Tatjana Schoenmaker is preparing to return to the pool at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, England later this month, her first international meet since her pair of medals in Tokyo last year.

Schoenmaker was an unexpected sensation in the pool for South Africa in Japan, smashing the women’s 200m breaststroke world record on her way to the gold, and also winning the 100m silver, breaking the Olympic record earlier in the heats.

Those results put the then-24-year-old on an understandable high at the time, and she told ESPN that she still struggles to comprehend that people are talking about her when they describe her accolades.

“It’s weird because it never sinks in,” she said ahead of her international return. “The only reason you realise it happened is that everything is very busy.

“They’re right when they say your life changes. It has been an adjustment. So you kind of slowly get used to it I guess, but it is still weird when someone has to introduce me for an interview or something and they add [Olympic gold medallist]. It doesn’t sound right.”

Schoenmaker has not been idle since the Games, and won’t be going to England without competitive swims under her swimming robe belt, but she took a good amount of time off after Tokyo, and did not compete at the FINA World Championships earlier this month.

She explained: “Going into the Olympics, I knew I was going to take some time off afterwards. It’d been a long five years. I was so excited because I was going to take a month off.

“Coming back, I was very excited to train, but I needed that break. I wanted to be in the pool, and then when I actually got back in the pool — that’s when I felt I needed take time off.

“It was a bit of a challenge. It wasn’t as easy. When I got back, it was hard to go back to putting 100% in. It’s very nice to know it was only three years to the next [Olympics] and not four or five, but it was definitely very tough.”

Part of what made it so tough, she says, was the post-Olympics blues that many athletes, including fellow South African swimmer Chad le Clos, describe. According to research, up to 24 percent of Olympians experience a post-Games depression.

Schoenmaker said: “I definitely could agree with them. I wouldn’t say that I’m depressed or anything, but you do go down… you have a dip.

“For me, it was challenging, because I always thought to myself that it wouldn’t be me — I didn’t think that I would ever feel that way, but somehow I caught myself being less motivated and it was a challenge, something I didn’t think I would experience.

“But I pitch up at training every day and I still enjoy what I’m doing. Even though it might not have the results that it should have — at the previous nationals, I didn’t swim as great — it’s obviously even more discouraging, but I’m doing what I can do and [God] can do the rest, so I mostly use my faith to get through it.”

Schoenmaker’s assessment that she ‘didn’t swim as great’ is subjective, as she did win two golds and two silvers in the competition she’s referring to, at the South African National Championships in April this year.

Her slight disappointment stems from her silver in the 100m breaststroke, where she lost to teen sensation and fellow Commonwealth Games teammate Lara van Niekerk. But she resists the idea that there’s any kind of rivalry between the pair.

She said: “People — especially media — push us against each other where we actually can stand together and get further.

“Outside the pool, we’re friends. You do your work and I do my work. As we dive in, we compete, but outside, we celebrate each other’s victories. I’ll support her no matter what, even if I come last.

“It’s not about who comes first and who comes last. If you have the best race of the day, it’s fantastic. The media tries to create this ugly rivalry when it could be such a good rivalry, where we could actually push each other rather than trying to break one another down.

“We are both trying to represent South Africa. If there’s already tension within the South African team, how are we going to get success as a unit?”

Future success is something she wants, of course, but she’s serene at the thought of not being the best for her entire career. Her relaxed attitude comes from experience, after losing out on a place at the Rio 2016 Games by a split second.

She now takes things as they come, trusting that her hard work will be enough. At the time, she was devastated, but in hindsight, she believes it was for the best.

“I missed Rio [by] one split-second. It was a challenging time, but it was nice to reflect back. As a 19 year old, I had no massive international experience and I was going to go from national level to the Olympics,” Schoenmaker said.

“Looking back, maybe I needed to go through that disappointment to take me where I was in 2021 — more of a confident swimmer and knowing that to be in the final, I had to swim those times, so I deserved to be there just as much as anyone else.

“Just having that confidence in yourself and also being at that level of competition, I needed those other years of experience of Commonwealth 2018 and World Champs 2019 to stand at the Olympics and just enjoy it, instead of being so scared to race because the best in the world are there.

“Now, you can kind of be confident and have a stronger mentality of saying: ‘I also swam these times and I also deserve to be in the final. I don’t have to be scared. It’s just another day of racing.'”

Schoenmaker will swim in the 200m breaststroke heats on Sunday July 31, and potentially in the final later that day, while the 100m heats and semifinals are on August 1, and the final on August 2.

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