By Mark Etheridge
It’s all hail King Henri the Third as Team South Africa triathlete Henri Schoeman raced to third place and South Africa’s second bronze medal of the Olympic Games on Thursday.
Schoeman, who just a day ago was running the medical gauntlet in the Athletes’ Village to alleviate fears of a possible respiratory infection before getting the thumbs up from team doctors, ran the race of his life as he was only bested by Britain’s brilliant Brownlee brothers (Alistair and Jonathan) on a corker of a day at Copacabana Beach.
And making it a doubly delightful day for South Africa was Richard Murray’s miracle run to fourth placed, just behind Schoeman.
The two clocked 1hr 45min 43sec and 1:45:50 respectively as Alistair Brownlee defended his Olympic title in 1:45:01 with his brother 6sec adrift.
Four months ago Murray’s march to a possible Rio medal had seemingly been left lying on the Gold Coast roadside in Australia as he crashed in a WTS event and broke his collarbone.
For Murray it had been the worst possible swim on Thursday as he was even further off the pace than normal and he played catch-up for the rest of the race.
But back to Schoeman and the shy Durbanite can rightly shout it out from the rooftops right now.
He came out of the water (where he’s one of the dominating forces in world triathlon) in seventh spot. He was then immediately in a front pack of 10 who had a gap of around a minute over the chasing pack (led, as is so often the case, by Murray).
The pack never caught the front riders on the cycle and Schoeman was about sixth as they swopped bike saddles for running shoes. There’s a wise head on those young shoulders and Schoeman was content to let the Brownlees go up the road and concentrate on creating a medal memory of his own.
He soon hauled in France’s Vincent Luis and Belgium’s Marten van Riel – and for at least half of the run was in no-man’s land between the Brownlees and the non-medal winners.
He crossed the line in almost unbelieving fashion.. grabbing his head with his hands as if to say “what have I done?” What he had done was to boost Team South Africa’s medal tally to eight medals (one gold, five silvers and now two bronzes) and two better than the rainbow nation’s best return to international sport in 1992.
For Murray there was the consolation of once again having the fastest run on the day (a 30:34 that on any other cooler day would have been worth around 29:30) but he will go to sleep on Thursday night thinking ‘if only it had been a kilometre longer’.
Afterwards Schoeman was still in dreamland. ‘A week ago I was ill and have had a fever here this week and was just happy to be on the startline. Being here at my first Olympics was a dream come true. I had a bad first transition and was the last one to make the front group but that motivated me to fight for top five. And once I started running into third I gave it all and was running for my life.
‘I knew the heat would be a factor so I saved my legs a lot… I knew towards the end that there’d be some casualties so I kept cool and it paid off.’
On his breakthrough event he was equally disbelieving. ‘I’ve been coming short of a podium but now I’ve broken through.. it’s just unbelievable. I just wanted the breakaway and thought 10 of us would be good [it was exactly 10 who got free] so it gave us a chance to get away from the faster runners like Richard and Joao Pereira so now I’m so happy to make everyone proud.’
As national triathlon coach Lindsey Parry alluded to beforehand, patience worked well for Schoeman as he refused to be sucked into a suicidal pace by the Brownlees.
‘I didn’t want to catch them as you could end up paying double at the end. I could see Luis was looking tired.. so he was my target and then togo for a possible third. When I caught him I surged past him and made a gap – and started running for third.
‘I was feeling strong and good and just wanted to keep cool on run. The first two laps went past easily but the last two were hard. And in triathlon it’s not over till its over, we saw how close Richard was to me at the end so that last straight I was sprinting for my life.’
Back to the realisation… ‘It’s honestly just not sunk in – this has been a dream all over my life and maybe tomorrow when I wake up with a medal around my neck it will hit home. My family back home would have been going crazy and I swear I could feel their power driving me on.’
So to is Team South Africa’s medal count driving on… they’ve already beaten their best to date (Athens, 2004 and London four years ago) where they won six. So there are now eight in the bag and with Caster Semenya pretty much a ‘gimme’ in the women’s track 800m on Saturday evening they’ll be just one away from double figures.
As for Murray the miracle worker, he reflected as he had his blistered feet doused with cooling water. ’On the bike I thought it was London all over. Once again I did too much work on the bike. I didn’t know Henri was so far up in front and hey, if we’d had another kilometre or two…
‘My swim was worse than I thought and I guess a couple of months out didn’t do my left side any good but coming away with a fourth place, I’m very stoked.
‘Conditions weren’t that warm, SA summers are worse, There was lots of water on run course and I was slipping and kept on saying to myself .. “don’t slip, don’t slip” – so was just going for better than 17th like in London and hey fourth will do. Great conditions, great course, great organisation… kudos to the organisers. OK, I saw some toilet paper out there on the swim but hey, c’est la vie!’
And yes, life IS good for Team South Africa right now… and long may it continue that way – well at least for the final three days of competition. Still to come is the women’s triathlon on Saturday and you can be sure that the SA duo of Mari Rabie and Gill Sanders will have been inspired by their male counterparts’ performance and raring to go!
Pictures of Schoeman and Murray courtesy of Christiaan Kotze/SASPA