In March 2011, Henri Schoeman shattered his right collarbone in a mountain biking accident. “I was forced to start working on the basics again. I used the time to strengthen the muscles in my lower legs. The results started showing when I began running again. It may have disrupted my 2011 season… but it was a blessing in disguise.”
Fast forward to August 2016, and Henri finds himself on the Olympic triathlon podium, a bronze medallist, sharing in the medal haul with Great Britain’s Brownlee brothers.
— Olympics (@Olympics) August 18, 2016
He can look back on that now as one of best achievements, but it’s been said that those who admire the destination rarely know about the ardours of the journey.
Henri shares some of his post-Rio thoughts in this interview I conducted via email.
— Franzel Allen (@JustFranzel) August 17, 2016
Two days before the Olympic triathlon, you were man down in bed. What thoughts were going through your head?
I was extremely stressed. I thought my one dream was going to slip away because of a silly illness. Four days out, I thought it was enough time for it to get better but it was only getting worse. I was bombed with medication and antibiotics. Only the afternoon before race day I started feeling improvements and I knew I was going to make the start line.
Are there any lessons from your sickbed to podium success that you’ll employ in your future racing?
Definitely. I learned to focus all my attention on myself. Sometimes I get carried away thinking a little too much about the race or other competitors, which can sometimes be intimidating. The lesson is that I can only control my own actions and my own outcome. Focus on my process goals to achieve the best possible outcome.
I don’t know much about Triathlon but Schoeman is doing a great job in Rio for @teamsa16 !!!
— Daryl Impey (@darylimpey) August 18, 2016
If it wasn’t for your lesson at Kitzbühel, where you made the mistake of not pushing hard enough on the bike, and then not having the figurative runway to catch up on the run, would you say the bronze medal might have had a smaller chance of being on your mantlepiece now?
Thinking about the race now, there are many things I could’ve done or changed or improved on. I was always in a conservative mode because I wasn’t 100% confident feeling ill before the race. Running myself into third was amazing for me at the time. Feeling 100% , I probably would’ve run with Brownlees, because I knew I would’ve run better than I did in Rio.
Words cannot describe it. Olympic Bronze Medalist! Thank you to everyone supporting and having faith in me back home pic.twitter.com/QdWiUbU9zH
— Henri Schoeman (@H_Schoeman) August 18, 2016
There’s less than four years to the next Olympics in Tokyo. In Rio, you achieved arguably the biggest of your goals – an Olympic medal, with the opportunity to top the podium in Tokyo or beyond. What does the year ahead hold for you with this in mind?
It’s a fantastic feeling to already accomplish one of my biggest goals before some other smaller ones. Winning a world championship medal or being world champion was part of the process goals to becoming an Olympic champion/medalist. I have already set one clear goal, and that’s to be the best runner in triathlon over the next four years. If I can do this then I don’t see why I can be a World or Olympic champion in four years’ time.
Apart from those accolades, how will you like to look back on your career, and say it was a success?
If I can change the sport of triathlon in South Africa, grow it and inspire generations to take part in the sport. I don’t want the next generation of athletes to struggle the way I did getting to where I am now. It’s tough and it can easily break and demotivated anyone. There needs to be more money put into triathlon and have support systems in place to develop our youth and carry our elites to the highest level. I was fortunate enough to have parents that took out loans to get me to international races to compete in 2013. I was fortunate to have some amazing results and paid every cent back to my parents and bought my next tickets to get to the next races with my prizemoney. If I didn’t perform in my first races of 2013… I probably wouldn’t have been having this interview today.
We have so much potential in South Africa and it is important to find the talent. The USA are brilliant at scouting for athletes. I think we could use some scouting agents to find these talented people and introduce them to the sport at a young age. There needs to be funding and support for this though.
— Discovery (@Discovery_SA) August 18, 2016
Earlier this year, you were aiming for a podium but had to settle for eighth place in Stockholm. That was because you had picked up a bug and had to race sick. Do you or other WTS athletes do anything special to minimise your risk of picking up lurgies while travelling? Trail runner Landie Greyling has told us she flies with an operating theatre mask over her face, to limit the number of airborne pathogens.
I basically like to keep clean while traveling. I try keep contact with anything to a minimum. I use hand sanitizer often or wash my hands when I can. I think my golden trick is to rub Bactraban in my nostrils to keep them from drying up. I also use a humiflyer mask to keep the air I breathe balanced and moist.
You’re nearly 25 now, so will still be a young 28 at the next Olympics, and definitely in with a great chance at gold. Will you be taking any lessons from athletes with long careers like XTERRA legend Conrad Stoltz or your international role models Javier Gomez, Michael Phelps, or Kenenisa Bekele?
As long as I’m at the top end of the sport and enjoying I will keep competing. I love racing and I have a competitive nature. I’m looking at two more Olympics and possibly getting into the longer ironman racing.
You’ve travelled to several cities around the world to compete. Which of them hold the fondest memories, and why?
Kitzbühel I will never forget. Still one of my most amazing racing memories and the landscape was spectacular.
— Conrad Stoltz (@ConradStoltz) August 18, 2016
What makes Durban a good place to be a triathlete?
Great weather all year round. I have my support team around me in Durban and the facilities to train are top class with Kings Park swimming pool and athletics track. Great hills for cycling!
Alasdair Hatfield has coached so many talented swimmers. Your collaboration with him has worked for you for your entire swimming, and now, triathlon career.
Alisdair has so much knowledge and experience. He brought me up swimming endurance and I noticed over the years he starts all his swimmers with a good base. It was key for me to have had a solid cardiovascular base growing up from a young age, it’s been only paying off!
— Ockert de Villiers (@ockertde) August 18, 2016
When you move up to the 70.3 distance, will your daily routine change, apart from longer training sessions and the need for more rest?
The intensity will always be similar except with new pacing goals to that of a 70.3 race. There will be longer hours built into my training for sure, but working with pace and intensity is key to me to be able to still race fast.
Do you plan to be based in Durban for the foreseeable future?
For now, yes. It’s been working and I believe if something works, don’t change it. I have a wish to live and train in some places around the world but that will only happen when I’m older and more relaxed.
— Henri Schoeman (@H_Schoeman) August 29, 2016
What daily routines have you found to give you the biggest gains in your mental and physical preparation, both at home in Durban, and when on the road?
I never use to be one to listen to music. I now listen to music to get into a good space of mind before I need to train really hard or race. I find I can channel my focus onto the process that needs to be done.
— I am an African (@Clint_ZA) August 21, 2016
Who are the young triathletes in Durban and around South Africa we should be taking note of?
Ben de la Porte is an up and coming youngster. Loads of potential.
Tegan Gore also looks to be improving and competing well.
How can South Africa’s triathlon supporters help you and other aspirant professional triathletes to have satisfying and financially rewarding careers?
Get involved with triathlon and make it the talk of the nation. If numbers grow investors will take notice and invest their money into the sport. With an Olympic medal there has been so much light brought onto the sport and this is already a good step in the right direction. It’s a healthy and very sociable sport and anyone can take part in it!
Looking back, what advice would you give to yourself when you decided to become a pro triathlete?
Hard work pays off. Never give up. It’s not about how you fall but how you pick yourself back up. Don’t over-do training sessions or workload because that results in injuries, and that is very demoralising and frustrating.
Landed with the warmest welcome. Great to see so many young inspired children who will be the future of our sport! pic.twitter.com/bhvGGYct5x
— Henri Schoeman (@H_Schoeman) August 22, 2016
It’s a great feeling and so humbling to be able to inspire future generations. Back to training in Durban! pic.twitter.com/8eG5qY4p1k
— Henri Schoeman (@H_Schoeman) August 25, 2016