Taking part in the Olympic Games is no small feat. It requires months of hard work and training, mental preparation, dietary restrictions and the backing of a nation.
Olympic Day takes place on 23 June each year to commemorate the day the International Olympic Committee was founded in 1894 - the birth of the modern Olympics as we know it.
The Olympics is the world’s largest international multi-sport event held every four years that captivates the world for its array of talented individuals all vying to become recognised as the best athletes in the world.
Thousands of athletes and sportspersons from all across the world take part in various games and sports such as athletics, rowing, swimming, gymnastics, hockey and much more.
The modern Olympic Games are inspired by the Greek’s ancient Olympic Games held in Olympia, from the eighth century B.C. to the fourth century A.D. The first modern Summer Olympic Games were held in 1896 in Athens, Greece. Since its foundation, International Olympic Day has widened its audience and has adapted to various local specificities.
If there’s one sportswoman who knows what it takes to become an Olympian, its South African Swimmer, Tatjana Schoenmaker, who took to the waters earning South Africa's first gold medal at the Tokyo 2020 Games by storming to a world record in the 200m breaststroke.
Tatjana is the world record holder in the long course 200-metre breaststroke and the African record holder in the long course and short course 100-metre breaststroke as well as the short course 200-metre breaststroke. She is a former African record holder in the long course 50-metre breaststroke and former South African record holder in the short course 50-metre breaststroke. Not only did she win the gold medal and set the world record in the 200-metre breaststroke, she also won the silver medal in the 100-metre breaststroke at the 2020 Olympic Games.
We sat down with Tatjana who gave us some insight into what it takes to become an Olympian, and more…
What does it mean to you as a South African Sportsman to be titled an Olympian?
Tatjana: As an athlete it is an honour to go to the Olympics and be titled an Olympian. It’s that goal you set out for yourself as a young child that is often seen as unobtainable, so being able to reach that goal, travel the world, and represent your country is insane, but what makes the moment even more special is being South African. South African people have that Ubuntu spirit, and without the people and that spirit I don’t think we would achieve half the things we are able to. I am the biggest cry-baby, but I am sure any fellow-Olympian would agree with me, it’s that moment when you stand on the podium and get to proudly sing your national anthem – it simply unites us, which to me is the most special moment anyone could ask for.
The Tokyo Olympics came at a time just after having experienced a world pandemic. Talk us through that experience and what made it unique?
Tatjana: Looking back, it was definitely a very difficult time for so many and I don’t take away the hurt that people went through and the lives that so many lost, but what I can say in terms of my swimming, is that I am grateful that it gave me another year to do what I love. When the Olympics finally came around, I had this incredibly nervous feeling – a nervous but scared nervous feeling. In terms of me and my preparation, I was blessed with another year which allowed me to not only grow but also taught me so much more about myself during the pandemic; as well as, it allowed me to REST! One of the most important things the pandemic also taught me was character building and learning to train in different ways as we couldn’t get to the pool, and just the way we were able to support each other during that time really grew the team dynamic – which I believe I needed in order to have the results that I did.
Representing Team South Africa comes with a lot of pride and honour, but also expectation. Did you ever feel the pressure to reach a certain level or position in the tournament?
Tatjana: I definitely think there is a lot of expectation and pressure, but it definitely depends on how you handle it! I think you constantly have to remind yourself that you will never be able to fulfil other people’s expectations, and sometimes you find your own expectations are even higher than what those people have for you, so being able to manage those expectations is incredibly important. It often sounds easier than it really is, but I knew going into the Olympics that the training and the efforts that we had put in over the years was enough – I had done everything that I could, and for me, it really didn’t matter where I came. Being able to represent your country at the Olympics is already an incredible achievement, never mind you being the only one out of 18 000 people in the whole world that’s able to go to the Olympics, so I knew that everyone had their expectations, although they couldn’t exceed the expectations I had for myself, just managing it in terms of just really enjoying the experience and not taking for granted what you have already achieved should not exceed the expectations. I am grateful that I managed it well!
The Tokyo Olympic village was built to sleep up to 18,000 Olympians, coaches and officials. What was it like walking around seeing so many other fellow Olympians from other countries?
Tatjana: It is incredible! I think being in a space within that village environment, surrounded by like-minded athletes, all there performing at a certain level, giving everything they’ve got, knowing that everyone there had to put aside a lot for their sport and for them to be where they are, was absolutely incredible however, in saying that, it didn’t quite feel like the Olympics because you don’t quite comprehend that something like this is really happening to you! We were very much unaware of the magnitude of the event and how big it really was – which I am actually quite grateful for. The Olympics didn’t really kick in, haha, I think had it kicked in we would have been a lot more nervous and scared. Even just walking past amazing athletes like Novak Djokovic makes you realise, “Wait, we are at the Olympics!” Haha. Seeing other amazing athletes that you’ve always looked up to on TV makes you realise, “WOW! You’ve kind of made it!“ It truly is such an amazing experience; even just the words village, it truly represents how all of us athletes have a deep love for our sport and how we share in the experience together. We eat together, we share the same building, we walk around in the same areas, and we all here for the same thing and that is to give our best
The world’s top sportsmen and women were able to train at a huge gym with 600 cardio and weight-training machines. How did this aid in your daily recovery and training?
Tatjana: Even though gym plays such a massive role in my training, throughout the Olympics, I did a bit a cardio and mainly took off from gym for my muscles to recover, so I didn’t really get to experience the gym side of things at the village, but just walking past there every day made me almost want to go in there, just to have that experience. It’s a next-level-gym!
As an Under Armour athlete, how does the innovative brand aid you in being the best athlete possible?
Tatjana: I think it gives you the confidence to be the best, and also seeing other athletes wear the same brand as you, makes you realise what a world-class brand it really is. Being able to connect with other athletes through a brand, especially coming from different sporting codes, really says something to me. It really makes you feel part of a bigger family, and not just swimming alone. Sometimes we find ourselves very excluded in our sports where Under Armour makes you feel like you’re a part of something bigger. Every day when I am training and wearing the apparel in the gym, it makes me feel like I am world-class, and to me, when you feel that way, you feel a place of belonging, which brings out the best in you and makes you truly believe in yourself.
As we celebrate Olympic Day 2023, what are your hopes for the future generation of Olympians as they find passion and purpose in sports?
Tatjana: Remain in that passion and purpose! Sometimes, us as athletes, we always strive for the achievements, for example to get better or reach a certain goal, and that sometimes takes away from the purpose and passion of the sport. It’s so important to embrace the sport and enjoy it. At the end of the day, a happy swimmer is a fast swimmer, so if we maintain that passion, we will ultimately maintain our purpose. The characteristics that our sport teaches us is also so important – the discipline and the perseverance – they create characteristics within you that last a lifetime, long after your swimming career has ended. Don’t undersell yourself in the sense of your achievements not being big enough, or not being fast enough – this only causes athletes to quickly go on to set the next goal, but really what you should be doing is enjoying the goals that you achieve no matter how big or small they are. Savour in the moment before jumping into the next goal.
Olympic day is celebrated to promote and spread awareness about the Olympic Movement, and to encourage more and more people to take part in the Olympic Games. How do you believe we, as South Africans, can do this?
Tatjana: Sport plays such a massive role in unity and bringing a nation together but we should also not put all the pressure on sport, as there are a lot of things to do to lift up a nation. Sport does definitely play a role but it is not the only role. Where we have those moments to use sports to encourage and uplift, we should do it. As sportsmen and women we often feel like we are irrelevant, or only play a certain role or only connect to a certain part of the world, however, there is so much more we can give to others and more others can give to us no matter what sphere you are in.
What is one memory you will cherish as an Olympian?
Tatjana: The journey towards it! If I had to pick one specific moment it would be the decision you make to commit to the sport because everything from there are memories that you will cherish forever. The fact that I was even there, it gets me emotional at times. It was a dream come true and the only word that I can use is INCREDIBLE. The memory that represents the journey is just how people got together for that moment – when people woke up at 3am to watch you put in the work and hours and afterwards celebrated whether you just finished or came last or won, or whatever happened, we just celebrated. We celebrated the athletes as people and not just their achievements.
Being an Olympian and participating in the Olympics is more than just competing. It’s a celebration of talent, of history, of culture and of sporting heroes. The five rings of the Olympic Ring represent one continent of the world each. In addition to that, at least one of the colours of the rings is present on flags of all countries of the world.
Under Armour is no stranger to highly esteemed talent having represented some of the greatest Olypians to date, such as Michael Phelps, USA Olympic Gold Medalist. Under Armour’s “family” includes other big-name athletes who competed in the 2012, 2016 and 2020 Olympics such as Andy Murray in tennis and Kelley O’Hara in soccer.
Beyond Phelps, Under Armour has backed a fleet of about 250 athletes - from the famous to the obscure - and plans a wide range of creative tactics to connect its brand to the Olympics. The apparel company will, for instance, rent a series of outdoor gyms on a 50-mile stretch of beach in Rio to set up marketing outposts and host daily workouts for fans during the games. It will entertain VIP guests in a penthouse where they can mingle with its stable of athletes and enjoy all the offerings the Olympics have to offer.