After Tatjana Schoenmaker ended a lengthy drought with an explosive breakthrough a few years ago, raising her hand as South Africa’s first world-class female swimmer in two decades, it was unclear whether she was a one-off anomaly.
But any fears that medals in the pool would dry up when Schoenmaker retired have been put to bed by the country’s latest swimming sensation, 19-year-old Lara van Niekerk.
Around the turn of the century, SA women made a real impact, led by double Olympic breaststroke champion Penny Heyns.
Once Heyns called it quits, however, nobody emerged in her wake until Schoenmaker secured the first ever World Championship medal by a South African woman in 2019 and went on to pocket two medals at last year’s Tokyo Olympics, breaking the 200m breaststroke world record in the process.
And though Schoenmaker seemed a shadow of her former self at the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham last week – perhaps being more concerned about her title defence at the 2024 Paris Olympics – Van Niekerk picked up the slack in spectacular fashion.
Ensuring we don’t have to wait another 20 years before the next talent emerges, Van Niekerk isn’t just showing promise by chasing Schoenmaker. She’s beaten her so many times this year she has made her esteemed compatriot look relatively average.
Born in Polokwane, Van Niekerk linked up with coach Eugene da Ponte at the age of eight, as a pupil at Curro Heuwelkruin Independent School.
By training with her Pretoria-based mentor she was able to rub shoulders with some of the country’s best swimmers, including Schoenmaker, and Van Niekerk later moved to the capital city to be closer to Da Ponte.
With a combination of her environment and her commitment to the sport, Van Niekerk rapidly climbed the domestic swimming ladder, and by the time she reached her teens she was already making waves at international level.
She raked in five medals at the 2017 African Junior Championships in Cairo, at the age of 13, and the following year she secured four golds at the African Championships in Algiers, competing against senior opposition.
It was last year, however, that she rose to prominence as a potential future champion at the highest level of the sport.
A breaststroke specialist, she broke the African short-course 50m record, touching the wall in 29.85 at the 2021 SA Short-Course Championships in Pietermaritzburg, and she went on to set a new long-course continental 50m mark of 29.88 at the Northern Tigers Championships in Pretoria in December.
At this season’s national championships, held in Gqeberha in April, she broke her own long-course record by stopping the clock at 29.72 and stunned Schoenmaker to win the SA 50m and 100m titles.
Proving she was the real deal, Van Niekerk went on to secure the nation’s only medal at the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest last month, grabbing bronze in the 50m final.
Despite all her previous achievements, however, Van Niekerk admitted she was a little overwhelmed after winning double gold in the 50m and 100m events at the Commonwealth Games last week, leading the charge as South African swimmers wrapped up all three women’s breaststroke gold medals.
“I can’t believe I’m a double Commonwealth champion. I don’t think it’s ever going to sink in,” she said after winning the 100m title.
“I’m so happy after the World Championships, to achieve this as well, it means a lot.”
Schoenmaker was grinning from ear to ear after her latest defeat to Van Niekerk, beaming at the potential of her younger compatriot.
“It’s so nice to stand on the podium now looking at younger swimmers taking medals. It is a privilege to share this moment with her,” Schoenmaker said after settling for second place in the 100m final in Birmingham.
“Hopefully there’s still a lot to come. I don’t know how long I will be on the podium, but as long as they (younger swimmers) stay on, it’s fine.”
Though she has repeatedly finished ahead of her in championship races this year, Van Niekerk remained humble when talking about Schoenmaker, insisting she remained a driving force in her career.
No matter how many times she touches the wall in front, Van Niekerk will always appreciate Schoenmaker for giving her the confidence she needed to achieve her best.
“She’s always been a role model for me over the years,” Van Niekerk said.
“Growing up and being around her has really inspired me and shown me what I can achieve.”