By GARY LEMKE in Tokyo
What became a grey day after inclement weather rolled into Japan turned out to have a silver lining for Team SA at the 20202 Tokyo Olympics. Two silver linings, in fact, as Tatjana Schoenmaker and Bianca Buitendag opened the country’s medals tally.
For the fifth time in the last eight Olympics, it was a breaststroke swimmer who delivered South Africa’s first medal at the Games – just like Penny Heyns had done in 1996 and 2000 and Cameron van der Burgh had in 2012 and 2016.
This time it was Tatjana Schoenmaker who did the business, denied the gold in the last 25 minutes by the precocious 17-year-old American Lydia Jacoby in the women’s 100m breaststroke final.
A couple of hours later, Bianca Buitendag continued her dream run in what is the final professional surfing competition of her career. An Olympic silver medal is a fine way to sign things off.
Schoenmaker, in her debut Olympics, came to Tokyo on the back of her breakthrough at the 2018 Commonwealth Games where she’d done the 100/200m double on the Gold Coast. Despite the fact that her better event is the 200m, she laid down her marker with an Olympic record 1min 04.82sec performance in the 100m heats.
She followed up by getting the better of the defending Olympic champion Lilly King in the semi-finals, handing the American her first defeat in the event since 2015, and qualified fastest for the final, securing lane four in the process.
On Tuesday, she found herself the meat in a United States sandwich with Jacoby on one side and King on the other. And for 75 glorious metres she held both at bay, having reached the wall first in 30.41 before the teenage American, somewhat surprisingly, finished off the race stronger.
The winning time was 1:04.95, with Schoenmaker’s silver coming in 1:05.22 and King, the bronze medallist in 1:05.54, being defeated twice in two days.
Schoenmaker’s immediate body language showed that she’d won silver, not lost the gold. She looked at the scoreboard and burst out into a broad smile, and quickly gave Jacoby one of the biggest bear hugs we’ve seen at these Games. The smile and genuine delight at winning silver was still apparent hours later.
Buitendag, who earlier in the week said that these Games would be the swansong to an international career that started at the age of 13, had the toughest draw imaginable. She took on Australian great, seven-time world champion Stephanie Gilmore in the third round. After then seeing her off, she was thrust into a quarter-final with Yolanda Hopkins, the No 9 seed. With that challenge out the way a stiffer task awaited her in the semi-finals.
No 2 seed Caroline Marks of the United States was dispatched with ease, 11.00 to 3.67, and suddenly it was a case of gold or silver in the final, with No 1 seed and four-time world champion Carissa Moore awaiting her.
After beating Marks, Buitendag said, “The ocean is wild. It can go anyone’s way. It really is just a question of chance out there. I really fought with everything that I had, I had nothing left. The tank was empty by the time I got out of the water.”
It proved to be a bridge too far on a day which suited Buitendag, possibly the tallest women’s surfer at these Games and who prefers the bigger waves to the smaller swells. A typhoon that had made landfall during the night turned conditions in her favour throughout the day, but she found the world No 1 just a bit too much in the final.
Now that South Africa is on the medals board, more will follow. That’s how it has been every Games where the swimmers, especially the breaststrokers, have got things rolling. Thanks to Schoenmaker for following what is now a proud, and lucky, tradition. And take a bow Bianca Buitendag, her achievements will go down as one of the better medal performances by a South African at an Olympics, given the draw she negotiated and the fact she was an unheralded No 17 seed coming into the competition.
The men’s Sevens rugby players should add to the medals tally on Wednesday, while Chad le Clos looks to be in a dogfight for silver and bronze in the men’s 200m butterfly, with the Hungarian Kristof Milak looking nailed on for gold, given the impressive manner in which he has powered his way through to that treasured lane four in the final.
Photo: Anton Geyser