Penny Heyns: realising the new South Africa’s Olympic gold dreams


    “I didn’t grow up with a dream about Olympic gold,” says Penny Heyns. (ZwemZA)

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    Penny Heyns did not know she had just made history. Standing on the podium at the Atlanta Olympic Games with the gold medal around her neck, she had no idea she  had won South Africa’s first Olympic gold medal in 44 years.

    It was 23 July 1996. Heyns had already broken the 100m breast stroke world record in her quest to reach the final. With her in the starting blocks was Australian Samantha Riley, her biggest competition. In Heyns’s mind, she had already won the race and beaten Riley into second place.

    Before the gun, before her second gold in the 200m two days later, there was this race to finish. Heyns tensed, waiting for the starter’s pistol: the crack that would release South Africa’s greatest hope for a medal into the pool.

    “I only found out long after the race. On the podium I remember thinking that I should feel emotional and overjoyed; instead I was feeling sad for Samantha [Riley].” Riley was Heyns’s long-time rival and a former world record holder. She picked up a bronze in that race.

    Heyns doubled her medal haul two days later in the 200m race, becoming the first female swimmer to win both Olympic titles. Before her triumph, South Africa’s last gold was also won in the pool: Joan Harrison’s backstroke struck gold in Helsinki in 1952.

    Like Heyns, Harrison was the prodigy of her day. Born into a sporting family – her mother swam competitively and her father played rugby – she was a national record holder by the age of 13. At the 1950 Commonwealth Games – aged 14 – she smashed the 440-yard freestyle record by an unbelievable 13 seconds. The Helsinki Olympics was only her second international competition. She went on to win South Africa’s first and – until Heyns’s in Atlanta – only swimming gold.

    By the age of 17 Harrison had retired from competitive swimming to concentrate on field hockey instead. Like Heyns she seemed to rise above the terror and expectations of competing and concentrated instead on the challenge of beating the high standard she set for herself.

    Finding new challenges

    Today, Heyns is a motivational speaker and swimming coach. The best piece of advice she shares with a roomful of executives or kids learning to swim is this: “No matter the stage think of it as just another challenge. Stick with what you know works. Do the absolute best you can on the day and remember to enjoy the moments.”

    Heyns grew up in Springs on Gauteng’s East Rand, and was swimming by the age of two. By the time she turned seven, she was swimming competitively. Today the pool where Heyns learnt to swim is called the Penny Heyns Swimming Pool, and it makes the publicity-shy hero self-conscious. “I am a very private person so I try to avoid the attention, but I do still get recognised and with that comes the autograph and photo requests.”

    Heyns retired as the best female breast stroke swimmer of the 20th century. Over her career she broke 14 world records, including an astonishing run of 11 new records in three months in 1999. She has found other challenges and only rarely misses her athletic career. She admits that she took her career and her achievements for granted, but that was a lapse of youth. “When you are young you tend to take a lot for granted. Some days I miss being as fit as I was in my younger competitive days, as well as the solitude that swimming offered. Sometimes I miss the adrenalin rush and the feeling of invincibility that youth and competitive swimming offered.”

    Growing up a devout Christian Heyns never considered swimming a career but felt that her God-given gift needed to be explored fully. Her deeply held beliefs also influenced which sporting heroes she wanted to emulate. “I respected, and tried to emulate, athletes who displayed good sportsmanship, both in victory and defeat. Athletes should be admired more for their character and sportsmanship – not their achievements only.”

    South Africa won other medals between that day in Helsinki and South Africa being banned in 1960 – seven silver and 10 bronze – but Heyns’s gold was special. For South Africa, a newly democratic country, she offered the promise of a future filled with shining achievement.

    Ever the competitor though, for Heyns, memory of that gold is still tinged with a little regret: “I was very relieved and happy to have won the Olympic gold, but the time in which I won was slightly slower than my world record swim from the prelims, so, in that sense both my coach and I were a little disappointed.”