Wesley Botton

By Wesley Botton

Chief sports journalist

Making waves in the pool: SA’s elite women swimmers end drought

Teenager Lara van Niekerk has added significant depth in the women's breaststroke.

For the last three decades, South African swimmers have been able to consistently put up a fight against the best in the world, but for most of that period, they were nearly all men.

The drought faced by local women, which saw an upturn a few years ago, was one of the biggest blemishes on SA sport.

At nine editions of the Fina World Championships between 2001 and 2017, seven South African men raked in a total of 28 medals (including 11 gold), but no women stepped on the podium.

Former stars

Similarly, while breaststroke specialists Penny Heyns and Marianne Kriel earned four of South Africa’s five medals in the pool at the 1996 and 2000 Olympic Games, their success was followed by a long dry run.

Three swimmers earned eight medals in individual men’s events, as well as a men’s relay gold, at the four editions of the Olympics held between 2004 and 2016, but no SA women reached the podium.

There was a welcome breakthrough, however, in 2018.

Though she was the only female swimmer in the national team to reach the podium at the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, Schoenmaker made a real splash by breaking the African records in the 100m and 200m breaststroke finals.

ALSO READ: Tatjana Schoenmaker: Five things to know about SA’s Olympic golden girl

The following year, Schoenmaker made history by becoming the first South African woman to earn a medal at the Fina World Championships.

Making the result even sweeter, Kaylene Corbett helped launch a new era reminiscent of the one led by Heyns and Kriel 20 years earlier, finishing eighth in the four-length final.

And both swimmers turned real potential into memorable results, with Schoenmaker securing gold and silver at last year’s Tokyo Olympics (breaking the 200m world record in the process), while Corbett finished an impressive fifth in the 200m event, with South Africa’s elite women outshining the men at the highest level for the first time since readmission.

Now, just eight months on, 18-year-old Lara van Niekerk has strengthened the country’s depth in the women’s breaststroke after breaking the SA 50m short-course and long-course records, and beating her experienced senior compatriots to the 50m and 100m national titles in Gqeberha last week.

Breaststroke swimmer Lara van Niekerk
Lara van Niekerk at the SA Swimming Championships in Gqeberha last week. Picture: Gallo Images

And with a packed season ahead that includes the Fina World Championships in Budapest in June, the Commonwealth Games in Birmingham in August, and the Short-Course World Championships in December, Van Niekerk will look to join Schoenmaker and Corbett in the hunt for podium places at this year’s major international events.

For the next generation to succeed, it really helps to have role models, as is evident in the long list of world-class male swimmers produced by South Africa since readmission.

The country’s elite women also have an opportunity now to lay the platform for a bright future, and they could be a real force at the 2024 Olympic Games.

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Sport columnists swimming Tatjana Schoenmaker