A Day With: Olympic medal-winning triathlete Henri Schoeman

Matt Jones - Editor 07:00 25/11/2016
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On the podium: Henri Schoeman.

In many countries, certain sports are king. In a vast majority it’s football, in the Philippines basketball rules, Pakistan and India are cricket crazy and in China table tennis dominates the agenda.

In South Africa it’s rugby, but Henri Schoeman fell in love with triathlon. His brother is a former Olympic swimmer, while his father and coach Joe is a keen runner and cyclist, so it’s not that difficult to see why.

What’s more gruelling is forging a path to greatness, but the 25-year-old is on it. He won triathlon bronze in Rio earlier this year and is plotting International Triathlon Federation World Series domination in 2017.

In Rio, you became the first South African to win a triathlon medal at the Olympics. Put that into words.

I’m really proud of that. It was the first Olympic triathlon medal for a South African so it was a great thing to achieve. As an athlete you always want to go into a race wanting to win. I was going for a medal but the top five was a realistic goal, so a medal was a bonus.

I wanted to use this Olympics as experience for the next. I’ll be in my prime in four years, so to win a medal in Rio was just a bonus and I’m really happy for that.

Athletes always talk about four years’ time as being their time, so were you ahead of expectations this year, and what are your aims for Tokyo 2020?

It’s been a great blessing to get that medal earlier than expected. I still want to build and I still have plans to win the World Series, I want to be world champion.

Definitely in four or eight years’ time I want to take that top step, that’s a goal of mine. I want to use the experience and confidence of Rio.

I’m going to work on my running, you end with the run so you want to have the fastest run. As a weak link in my repertoire it’s definitely something I’ve been working on and something I’m going to continue working on, to become one of the best runners in the sport. If I can do that the other achievements will come.

Compatriot Richard Murray is among the best triathletes in the world. How good is it for the country to have two South Africans at the sport’s pinnacle?

It’s really good. We had a strong performance at the Olympics with third and fourth and it shows we’re on the map. It’s great exposure for the country as we don’t really have a strong following here.

The Olympics gave us a lot of exposure so now lots more people are asking questions about it, so it’s great. Hopefully it will boom over the next few years and a lot more youngsters will get involved.

How much of an inspiration has he been?

We’re good friends, especially when I first came onto the World Series. Richard was my room-mate a couple of times. We get along and it’s great having him around. He put triathlon on the map for South Africa first so it’s great for the country.

You are both confirmed for the start of the 2017 ITF World Series in Abu Dhabi. How excited are you about coming here and what will be an acceptable finish for you?

I want to start how I finished, with a medal. After the off-season you kind of never know where you are with your preparations, if you’re behind or building up, because it’s a long year. It’s hard to judge but it’s a key race for all athletes to see where they are.

Abu Dhabi is often the most competitive field and it’s usually a big test after the off-season.

What are your past experiences of Abu Dhabi?

I’ve been here the last two years. It’s a great experience with the weather. It showcases the best of the capital as an international destination. The attractions and facilities are awesome, it’s such a scenic area.

On the podium: With Britain's Brownlee brothers.

On the podium: With Britain’s Brownlee brothers.

You finished last season with victory in the Grand Final in Mexico. Was it strange to win as you did, with Alistair Brownlee aiding his brother Jonathan who almost collapsed due to heat exhaustion?

It’s never the best way to win a race. I felt gutted for Jonny that he had those issues at the end of the race, but a race is a race and you have to time your nutrition and energy level expenditure.

It’s all a part of racing and I guess he mistimed that. Maybe he was under pressure as he’s never had me up there running with him before, maybe he felt like he had to attack and it cost him his race. But it was a great feeling for me to win.

I’m the fourth person ever to win a World Series Grand Final, Javier Gomez, Alistair Brownlee and Mario Mola are the only other ones, so to be up there with those names is quite an achievement.

What are your career highlights?

There’s a few. The big two are winning the Grand Final and third place in the Olympics. Also finishing fourth in the WTS rankings at the end of the year. Commonwealth Games silver medal in the team relay in 2014 and winning a World Cup in Tongyeong in 2014.

What is your favourite city to race in?

Either Hamburg or Stockholm. Stockholm, I really like the history with the buildings and the views. Hamburg it’s because of the spectators. There’s thousands of them around the course which is a really cool vibe when you race.

What do you do away from triathlon?

I enjoy video editing. I spend a lot of time with my girlfriend and friends, and I like walking on the beach. Simple things.

Growing up in rugby and cricket-mad South Africa, how did you get interested in triathlon?

My brother Riaan was a swimmer. He went to the Olympics in Beijing in 2008 and London in 2012, competing in the 400m individual medley. It’s in the blood. He retired after London so now I’m carrying it on.

Growing up, my dad was always a sporty person, involved in lots of running and cycling. We were always involved with swimming so eventually I wanted to reach out with running and cycling and at 18 I thought maybe it could be a path for me.

What advice do you have for kids taking up the sport?

Join a club and make it fun, learn with your friends. Get involved with races, challenge yourself and have fun with it.

Swimming and cycling are your strongest disciplines, but what’s your favourite of the three?

Running. I’m very passionate about it. When I was a boy I used to run quite a bit, dad was running on the track. I think it’s in me.

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