Tatjana Schoenmaker is better known as a pro athlete. She is the winner of the South African Sports Star of the Year and South African Sportswoman of the Year in 2019, silver medallist in the 200m breaststroke at the World Championships in Korea in 2019, two-time gold medallist in the 100m as well as 200m breaststroke at the World Student Games in Napoli, Italy, and two more gold medals at the 2019 Tokyo World Cup in the 100m and 200m breaststroke.
What is perhaps lesser known about the 23-year-old swimming sensation is that she has just completed her BCom (Financial Sciences) degree at the University of Pretoria (UP), becoming one of 11 000 UP students who graduated in a virtual ceremony last month. In between conquering the world one pool at a time, Schoenmaker said her studies helped her remain grounded.
In a fun tribute to her sporting career Schoenmaker wore a swimming costume with her gown.
“It definitely helped because mentally it ‘balanced’ me in terms of swimming and studying. In other words, while I enjoy focusing on swimming, it also focused my mind on studying, which in turn switched off my mind from swimming. The University and Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences personnel were not only very supportive when I missed tests or exams by allowing me to write them on different dates, but they also assisted me to extend my year because I was away for swimming competitions quite often. So, it definitely contributed to my success in respect to graduating as well as swimming,” Schoenmaker said.
She is one of the thousands of new UP graduates that have had to celebrate the completion of their studies online, instead of attending a traditional graduation ceremony. To mark the occasion, Schoenmaker shared images of herself in graduation attire with her parents. In a fun tribute to her sporting career, underneath the attire Schoenmaker was dressed in a swimming costume.
One of the things the swimmer readily admits is that excelling in the pool and the lecture halls of Tuks came with her having to do a balancing act of sorts, something that would not have been possible without passion and motivation. Quizzed on what motivates her and keeps her striving for more, she said the ability to do what she loves came out tops, every time.
"If I could live the past four years over again, I would choose to do precisely the same." - Tatjana Schoenmaker.
“Being able to do what I love – every single day. My love for swimming makes me want to get up every morning and go to training. It’s like my second home. Being fortunate enough to travel the world doing what I love, seeing new places and meeting new people and sports heroes, motivates me a lot,” she said.
Closely linked to this, she said, is understanding that the secret to success is being passionate about what you do. Especially when trying to build a career.
“First and foremost: passion. You need to have passion for what you are doing; whether it is swimming or studying. If you have a passion for what you are doing and it makes you happy, you most likely will succeed. Likewise, you need to have the necessary discipline: it takes a lot to push yourself, not just in the pool, but also academically when you ever so often have to study until late at night and still get to training the following morning. Finally, you also need to have a sense of timing. For example, when you take off a few hours to relax, you need to put in the same hours to catch up.”
One of the things she had to sacrifice during her successful sports and academic careers was the complete student life experience. Schoenmaker said it had made her seem inhuman to some around her, but it was a sacrifice she was prepared to make. One, it also seems, she has no regrets about.
"If I could live the past four years over again, I would choose to do precisely the same. I have had some fantastic experiences and met incredible people," she said.
With the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping through the world, the Tokyo Olympic Games have been postponed and this is one of the arenas that Schoenmaker had hoped to dazzle in. She is, like most South Africans, at home, taking the lockdown period one day at a time. As for what the future holds for her, she’s still pondering that.
“I would love to compete in the Olympic Games and be part of this amazing experience. It’s scary to think that, 23 years on, your childhood dreams are finally coming true! With regard to studying, I’m taking this year off to contemplate if there is something that I would like to carry on studying in terms of a postgraduate qualification... and in the process also get to know myself,” she said.
To current and future UP students, Schoenmaker said: “Enjoy it! Persevere! Sure, at times it will be tough, but at the end of the day it will be worth it. Anyone can do it...and at Tuks the staff is always willing to help out. While I’m doing well in my swimming, I’m also fortunate enough and grateful to say that I have a degree to fall back on; so if my swimming doesn’t work out for me, I always have my BCom to help me out,” she said.