Tatjana Schoenmaker poised to deliver SA's first gold medal at Tokyo Olympics

29 July 2021 - 06:13 By david isaacson
Tatjana Schoenmaker competes in the 200m breaststroke semifinals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Tatjana Schoenmaker competes in the 200m breaststroke semifinals at the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
Image: Al Bello/Getty Images

Tatjana Schoenmaker’s rivals narrowed the gap on her in the 200m breaststroke semifinals at the Tokyo Olympics on Thursday morning, but the South Africa star still takes more than a second’s advantage into Friday’s final.

Schoenmaker, nearly three seconds quicker than the field in Thursday’s heats, slowed to 2min 19.33sec, although bear in mind that her effort still ranks as the third-fastest swim in history.

It’s slower only than the 2:19.11 world mark by Denmark’s Rikke Moller Pedersen from 2013, and her own 2:19.16 Olympic record in Wednesday’s heats. 

Russia’s Evgenila Chikunova improved to 2:20.57 and American Annie Lazor to 2:21.94, finishing second and third in the semifinal behind the South African.

Schoenmaker’s Tuks teammate Kaylene Corbett won the other semifinal, lowering her personal best to 2:22.08 to post the fourth-fastest time overall and ensure that two SA swimmers will compete in the same Olympic final.

That last happened at Athens 2004 when Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling ended second and fourth in the men’s 100m freestyle. And the last occasion two SA women were in the same Games final was at Sydney 2000 when Penny Heyns and Sarah Poewe finished third and fourth in the 100m breaststroke.

Back then Schoenmaker was just three years old and Corbett one.

Schoenmaker, who won the 100m breaststroke silver on Tuesday after setting an Olympic record in the heats of that event, remains the overwhelming favourite to scoop Team SA’s first gold of the Games.

She, however, preferred to talk about the achievements of her competitors.

“It’s so nice racing different girls,” said Schoenmaker. “I did have the Russian girl next to me again and she swam an amazing time — so happy for her as well, 16 years old.

“And then my teammate making the final, that’s a massive achievement for her and I think she’s had the biggest smile on her face.”

Schoenmaker, looking to rest in the 24 hours or so before the final, said she was feeling the effects of the racing, having competed five days in a row and with two races scheduled for Friday — the final and the heats of the women’s 4x100m medley relay later in the day.

“It’s getting a bit tough,” she admitted. “[But] I’m just excited to still give my best for the last two races — the final and the relay — and then be able to go back home and actually celebrate everything that we’ve achieved.”

The 24-year-old said she had stayed off social media and hadn’t followed threads suggesting she was going to break the 200m breaststroke world record. 

But it seems that there are many messages waiting for her on her phone. “I only have so many days to focus on my racing and when I’m done I have the rest of the year to reply and really say thanks to everyone.”

In other action on Thursday, the SA men’s hockey team scored their first triumph of the Games, fighting back from 2-3 down against Germany to win 4-3.

SA’s defence has been leaky at times with 20 goals conceded in four matches, but the 12 that they’ve scored ranks them joint fourth-highest in the ‘goals for’ column among all 12 teams.

And Christiaan Bezuidenhout, on a three-under-par 68, was five strokes off the early pace in the men’s golf tournament. Garrick Higgo was one under through 14 holes when lightning interrupted the first round.