How Henri Schoeman Won SA’s First Triathlon Olympic Medal
Henri Schoeman won the men’s triathlon event at the 2018 Commonwealth Games on the first day of the competition. He finished the 750m swim, 20km cycle and 5km run in 52 minutes and 31 seconds.
This is Team South Africa’s first gold medal of this year’s campaign, but it’s not the first time the 26-year-old has placed on the podium at a major sporting event. Here he recalls how he won SA’s first-ever triathlon Olympic medal at Rio 2016.
Swim. Ride. Run. Repeat.
Trapped in the sweltering Brazilian heat, he felt he would miss his race. And this wasn’t just another championship or dime-a-dozen qualifier – this was the real deal, the lifetime dream.
Delirious, confused and frustrated. A flu, which had hit him after landing in the country’s capital, had derailed his training. And now, after days of waking up into the fog of a pounding and worsening fever, he was certain
This was the Olympics.
“Lying there I felt it all slipping away,” says the triathlete.
“All that work, all because of some stupid sickness.”
For a young athlete who had watched countless opportunities slip through his grasp because of bad luck, it may have been the final slap in the face. Racing in the event was some- thing he had visualised as a kid, sitting day- dreaming at his parent’s Durban home, his skin and hair still wet and pungent with the smell of chlorine.
It was a dream he had fought for, coming back from career-ending injuries to tell the world: you aren’t writing me off.
Hours before he scheduled to set up on the starting line his fever broke. Relief, and reward. This is how Schoeman walked away from Rio as an Olympic medallist.
Make The Switch
He wasn’t getting any quicker. That’s a tough realisation for an 18-year-old, says Henri looking back. Most of it boiled down to raw genetics: he was too short to cut it in the pool – that’s how he puts it. He was good, but he wanted to be great.
“There I was, you know – fully aware that if I kept trying to do the whole swimming thing, I wouldn’t get very far.”
He was told to let it go, put sport on the back burner and go study or climb the worn rungs of an established career ladder. But at the back of his mind he knew that he wouldn’t be able to live with the regret of leaving a single stone unturned, that there was still more to his story – and in that mindset, he saw a new opportunity.
“While I was swimming competitively I would take on triathlons in my spare time. That was a hobby,” he laughs. “Maybe more than a hobby – I’d won some big events both on a provincial and national level.”
A quick consultation with his coach, a few evenings spent agonizing and then he finally made the switch – he was going to be a triathlete. And here’s where the problems start.
Transitions can take their toll both mentally and physically, but in sport – those transitions can make or break you. Henri was forced to overhaul his training, and he threw his body at the track.
The result? He would have one great training session and then be booked out with an injury for a week. Next time? The exact same problem.
“I just couldn’t find my rhythm,” he says. “I had more injuries than I could count. Weak shins, strained calves and blistered feet, you name it. And then the kicker: stress fractures in both of my shins at the same time.”
A couple weeks of living like that is enough to make even the toughest athlete go crazy. For Henri, it carried on for three years. “I’m going to be real here, I felt like giving up,” he says. “Constantly being injured, man… it just gets to you.”
Evenings would be filled with difficult conversations with his parents, crippling self-doubt, and the desperate hope that he would wake up tomorrow unshackled by the limitations of his body. His days were a roundabout tour of gyms, doc- tor’s rooms and specialised clinics. He had a glut of information, but never any real answers.
Then, in 2011, he was thrown from his bike during an off- road triathlon. “I shattered my collarbone and that was it, I was out for six weeks,” he says. “As I lay there, I told myself, it’s over, I’m done. Those are weeks that I will never get back.”
In hindsight, that injury was a painful blessing. Forced to rest up, the athlete did something he hadn’t done for a while: take it easy. Within weeks he felt his feet and legs recover.
“I realised I was trying to go too hard at running,” he says.
After his recovery, he hit the road again – but this time he just felt stronger. His goals shifted from skyrocketing his performance to maintaining consistency, and with that in mind, he strung together solid training sessions week after week.
“I started listening to my body,” he says. “If my legs were taking a beating, I’d let them rest and focus on my swimming.”
By 2012, Schoeman was the definition of fighting fit. He had built up a solid cycling base to complement improving performances on the running track and in the pool. Now it was time to test the body he had forged over the past few years. Local pundits had little hope for the Durban triathlete. That was Henri’s introduction to the theme of his career: “People like to write me off. I so badly wanted to prove them wrong.”
But his first appearance at the U23 World Champs would not be that opportunity. He fell sick just days before the event and had a “dismal race”.
Again, he went back to the drawing board. He re-evaluated the way he trained and then like a pseudo-endurance scientist applied his findings in preparation for the next race. There would be a strong performance, and then another weaker one. “I would never be afraid to look at what went wrong and try improve the next time,” he says. “A loss is only a complete failure if you haven’t learnt anything from it.”
But by 2013 he was still struggling to string together victories. He bombed in his first race in San Diego, losing precious time during the run, which he attributes to nutrition. Of course, the critics just see an athlete out of his depth, who has no place competing next to the Brownlee brothers.
“They wrote me off again,” he says. “I wasn’t even on their radar anymore. Just another kid punching above his weight.”
And so did others. They told him to quit; to go and race in the smaller events and rack up some prize money. That’s a tough pill to swallow when your parents have taken out a loan to fly you across the world to realise your dream. To look them in the eyes after you’ve lost – to know you could’ve done better and know deep down that you’ve let them down. “I had some tough conversations with my dad,” he says. “I would get calls all day from people telling me I shouldn’t be doing this, but I said to my dad, I’m not going to do a lower class race; that’s not how I’m going to get to the Olympics.
“If I want to compete at the highest level I have to be thrown into the deep end. You know what he said? He said grab the bull by the horns and go for it, son.”
Later that year he was re-energised; he was racing like a tactician, and he placed fourth in the Yokohama, a world-renowned triathlon event.
“That’s when I told myself: this is where you’re meant to be, right here, doing this.”
Hit Your Stride
By this year, his dad – a former long-distance runner – had taken control of Henri’s training. After experimenting with programmes overseas, the triathlete had figured out that winning a race doesn’t just start and end with the right workout regime; it’s also about training in a familiar environment, where you’re surrounded by friends, family and the comforts of home.
He flourished under his dad’s watch, notching up a series of career-defining wins and lining up a spot in triathlon at the Olympic Games. And now, placing well in that race became his only goal for the year.
“It was perfect, it let me treat all the other races as practice,” he says. “It kept me relaxed and focused.”
Sometimes in life you feel like you are surfing the perfect trajectory, a golden arc that can lead to nowhere but success. Henri was on that wave – and then he crashed.
A few days after landing in Rio for the Games he was flattened by a savage flu. His temperature spiked and he was left bed-ridden and locked out from training. Those same pundits who had dismissed his wins in the past years’ races agreed that Schoeman’s failure was inevitable. “And that really sucked,” he says. “I remember just being so frustrated. Everything was going up in smoke.” Medical teams rushed to speed up his recovery. But the fever seemed to return with new vengeance every morning. Not for the first time he contemplated throwing in the towel.
It’s a real reminder of the fleeting windows athletes have to prove themselves, that years – decades – of training can be dashed and derailed by a niggling injury or a virus incubated in a congested airplane cabin.
It was the night before the race when the fever finally broke. For Henri, who had only been focusing on getting better, he felt an immediate flood of relief. Every minute, his condition seemed to improve.
“I can’t tell you how happy I was,” he says.
He calls the flu his second blessing in disguise. His time spent doing battle with his own body meant there wasn’t even a moment to spend agonizing over superstitions and tiny muscle strains. He walked into the race the next day calm and collected. “It was crazy: my head was perfectly clear.”
Prove Them Wrong
The race was a blur of physical exertion, tactical intuition and putting a year of planning into bold, adrenaline-spiked practice. Watching Henri race, you would’ve seen a man on a mission. He was clinical as he surged into third position and maintained his lead.
But inside his head? “I kept getting these goosebumps of excitement when I realised I could be finishing in the top three,” he says. “And then I had remind myself that it wasn’t over yet, and I had to concentrate.”
One of the best runs he’s had in his career secured him a podium finish. For a man who didn’t think he’d even make it to the starting line, the elation that followed was surreal.
“I felt the burden of doubt – I mean, a lifetime of doubt just lifted off my back,” he says. “Here I was. I had proved to the world that I deserved to be here.”
But homegrown hero hasn’t taken his foot off the pedal. He followed up his Olympic performance with a huge win at the ITU World Triathlon Grand Final in Mexico, beating out the sport’s unflappable titans: the Brownlee brothers. And this was after, guess what, critics had written him off again as a one-hit wonder. “They can say what they want. I’ll keep proving myself.”
He’s only 26, but a career hamstrung by countless injuries have turned him into a juggernaut. His secret? Patience and consistency. “That’s the beauty of this sport: with three disciplines, there’s always something to improve on. Can I add speed in the saddle? Ramp up my swims? Or smash my old running time? And the answer is always yes.
“I don’t see how I can’t stay motivated every day.”