Cecil M. Colwin
"It's interesting that different people have
asked me if I had dreamt about winning at the Olympics. But, the answer
is `no,' because in South Africa we were so isolated all those years, I
never thought about the Olympic Games
"Even in 1992, when I knew there was a chance
we would go, I swam that season thinking `Oh, well! I'll just do the best
I can, and if South Africa is invited to participate, and I make the team,
I'll go! But even Barcelona wasn't the wonderful, overwhelming experience,
that it should have been..."
However, despite Penny's lack of an Olympic dream,
her life portents were always connected in a subtle way with gold and water.
For instance, the gold in her two Olympic medals
could have been mined in the gold mining town of Springs, where she was
born. (Springs is only a few miles east of Johannesburg, the centre of the
world's richest gold fields.)
And, when Penny was a year old, her family moved
to Amanzimtoti, which, in the Zulu language, means "The Place of Sweet
"That's quite appropriate," I said to
Penny. "The waters have been sweet as far as you are concerned."
"Yes!" said Penny. "Did you know
that Dingaan, the Zulu king, gave the site this name, over 150 years ago?
Well, this is where the water first called me. I was very, very young, swimming
in the sea, and in either our pool or the neighbour's pool. Playing on the
sands, and in the rock pools, this was my place. I was a `water baby' I
"When I was seven years old, I told my mother
I wanted to race, and swim for the school team. Our neighbour overheard
me, and was amused. She told my mother she thought this `a stupid idea.'
"I was only in Class Two, and the school wouldn't
let us start swimming until we were in the next class, Standard One, and
about eight years old. Nevertheless, I went up to the teacher and asked
if I could swim, and I tried out for the team, and made the team. This was
my introduction to competitive swimming.
"I think it was around Standard Three that
I made the South Coast and Natal Districts team, and then went on to swim
in the Natal school trials in order to go to the South African Schools'
"I was about ten, and until then, I had never
swum for a club. I recall always trying to swim a little better in my backyard
pool. You know, working on my stroke. My mother's got a good eye for stroke,
and she used to help me. She wasn't a swimmer, but I think she just had
a talent for teaching."
`When I was about twelve or thirteen, I joined
the club at Amanzimitoti High School. It consisted of a bunch of parents
and teachers who basically just formed their own club."
Penny said that she had no professional coaching
until 1988, when Graham du Toit, a former Transvaal swimmer, came to `Toti'
(as Amanzimtoti was colloquially called), and he coached her until 1992.
"Graham didn't believe in doing a lot of distance
work which, in retrospect, was good for me, because I still feel fairly
fresh in terms of swimming and competition. We would go five workouts a
week, each one ranging between 3,000 and 3,500 metres, that's all. But in
a lot of it, the emphasis was on quality and not quantity. Most of the stuff
was all 100% effort work. I think this program served my 100 well, but my
200 suffered. I didn't start seeing results in my 200 breaststroke until
after I came to Nebraska.
"In my first nationals in 1989, I came third
in the 200, and my second nationals was in Johannesburg in 1990 and I got
two silvers in the 100 and the 200, behind Lizelle Peacock, the reigning
South African champion."
"Around 1991, a coach by the name of `Tubby'
Lynn came up to me and asked me if I wouldn't give him the chance to look
at my stroke and comment on it. He suggested a couple of changes, for instance,
using my head more in the forward throw, sort of copying the Barrowman style,
but not quite yet, at that stage.
"With just these couple of adjustments, I
went on to the nationals in Cape Town in 1991, and broke the South African
record in the 100 breaststroke in 1:12.57. This was also where I got my
Springbok colours (South African international blazer). I won the 200, and
I think I went a 2:40.
"The following year (1992) was the Olympic trials, and in the prelims I went a 1:12.8, and in the finals, I touched behind Sheila Turner. There was a lot of controversy about my being in the team."
"I always seemed to find somebody I looked
up to, or admired a lot, and initially, it was Julia (Russell). She had
been swimming since she was a lot younger. She was my role model. We swam
in the same age group."
"And so, all along, even later on in my swimming
career, it would have been people like, I suppose most recently, Samantha
Riley, because she had broken the world record. So it was always people
that I admired and, initially, I wanted to swim and be like them."
Penny said that she later realized that it was
important "not to always chase people, because their performances will
fluctuate, so rather chase your own goals and dreams.
"Along the way, I learned many lessons, and
I suppose these all started when I came to Nebraska in January, '93. I felt
my breakthrough, in terms of international competition, would have started
with the Commonwealth Games in 1994. That's where I got the bronze medal
in the 100 breaststroke."
Asked if she had started to put post-apartheid
South Africa on the map with that swim, Penny said "Well, I didn't
look at it that way, because I did compete at Barcelona, but I was so young
in terms of experience, and I maybe didn't make as much of the opportunity
as I should have done.
"But, obviously, when I swam in the Commonwealth
Games, I had already had some experience against either international swimmers,
or swimmers of a high calibre, through the NCAAs and the American program
"When I went to the Commonwealth Games, I
was more in control, and had more feasible goals for what I wanted to do,
and so, looking at my performances there, I went on to Rome for the World
Championships, intending that I possibly could get a medal."
"In the 100 breaststroke, I qualified second
going into the final. After that performance, the South African coaches,
who were there at the time, said `Oh! You're looking great. Maybe you can
win!' I started thinking `Well, maybe I can' but, deep down inside, I knew
that I wasn't at that point yet.
"That was a good lesson for me, because I
went into the race and, because I so badly wanted to win, I didn't have
respect for the other two medals, which would have been better for me, at
"I dived in, and I swam Samantha's race. I
didn't swim my own, and I got sixth place. The girl who got the bronze medal
had a time slower than what mine had been in the heats. So, had I swum my
own race, I possibly would have had a medal.
"Usually, I would count my strokes, even during
a main race, but in Rome, I didn't. I just swam. I went out with Samantha
Riley. I tried to stay with her, and then died coming back. Maybe I scrambled
through my stroke. I made a lot of mistakes in that race. I didn't swim
my own race. I tried to pace it according to everyone else."
I told Penny that I had seen her compete against
Samantha Riley in the 200 at the 1995 Pan Pacs in Atlanta, and I asked her
how she felt about that swim. "Well, I think I knew, going into the
Pan Pacs, that the 200, whatever happened, would be a creditable swim, because
in our nationals that year, I had gone 2:29 which ranked me first in the
world for the season. Of course, my 100 was a much better swim in comparison.
I went 1:08.4."
Penny expressed disappointment that Samantha was
disqualified in the 100. "I had prepared for the 100 that season, and
so, of course, I thought I stood a chance of beating her in the 100, and
then she was DQ'd. But, in the 200, I knew that I just wanted to stay as
close to her as I could. So I felt that I learned a lot about myself in
that race, as well as how to swim the race.
"That 200 was an important race for me; when
I came out of it, I knew how much work I needed to do, and where I was in
my planning for 1996."
Penny said that she does a lot of thinking about
her swimming. After a race, she sits back and analyzes it. "Not to
the extent of being tied up with too many little details, but to work out
in pretty simple terms, what happened in that race, what I did that was
good, what I did that was bad, and where I could learn and improve. I think,
every time I race, there's always something I can find, that I can do better."
I questioned Penny closely on this aspect of her
swimming. "Do you think you've ever swum a perfect race?"
"No," she said.
"Do you think anybody ever swims a perfect race?"
Quick as a flash, she replied "I think people
swim close to perfect. I don't think there's such a thing as perfect, because
if you are doing yourself justice, you will always manage to find something
you can improve."
I said, "That's a good comment. To be a champion,
or a world record holder, you've got to know every tile in the pool. Every
stroke you make must have meaning, any stroke that slips the water is a
stroke you are not using properly, and it all adds up by the end of the
Penny said "That's true. It's a good thing
you asked me about a perfect race, because I've often been asked, how come
after my swims at the Olympics, didn't I seem that happy?
"Well the reason was that in the 100, I knew
that I'd get the record in the morning, although I also expected Amanda
Beard and Samantha (Riley) to probably break it in the fifth heat. They
were in the fifth heat, and I was in the sixth heat, I think."
"Did that worry you?" I asked.
"No, I expected it," she said. "I
was waiting for it to happen. I had the attitude that I would then have
to go quicker. Whatever they did, I had to go quicker. I was really surprised
when they didn't improve on the time, and I just went out to still swim
my best race, and, when I touched I was happy with the time, although I
had hoped that when I broke the world record, it would be under 67. Because
of that, I thought, well O.K., I can go faster tonight.
"Also, during that race, I remember diving
in, and, for the first three or four strokes I didn't feel great. I wasn't
on top of the water and I didn't feel as powerful as I would have to liked
to have felt. Also, I glided into the turn. So, looking at that record swim,
I thought that there was a lot I could still do to improve upon it.
"Unfortunately, in the evening, it wasn't
that I was nervous of the other girls. I so badly wanted to go faster, and
I just knew that there were things that I could improve to make me swim
faster, and it would be ideal if I could do it in the final.
"But, because I was so anxious and eager to
break the record again, I rushed my stroke towards the end of my race. Because
of this mistake, I came up short at the wall, and that's where that `wonderful'
glide came into it. So there are always mistakes..."
Penny said that her 200 race at the Olympics was
probably her best ever effort.
"I knew that I could either go out pacing
it with Amanda, and then come back and beat her at the end, or I could go
out hard, and hang in there. But, I knew that my speed would count in my
favour, and so I decided to go out hard. I had to use my speed to benefit
my race, and then just try to hang in there."
Asked what she thought was the strong point in
her swimming, Penny said "Mainly my stroke, I think. Apart from that,
I think you have to be mentally tough."
Penny Heyns is noted for her unusually straight
and streamlined body posture, especially during the underwater phase of
her stroke. I asked her to talk about her technique.
"I think that, if you break my stroke up,
in the sense of a front and back half, then obviously my kick is my strong
point. My kick is a lot stronger than my pull, although, hopefully, my pull
is getting stronger every season. But, recently, I was reading an article.
I can't remember who wrote it, but the person was saying that the body position
is 70% and the arms and legs motion is 30%, and, that's true, because I
believe that to be true, not just watching my stroke, but even watching
Julia's (Russell) improvement over the last season."
Penny said that female swimmers naturally tend
to kick down. "If you work on it, you can kick more directly backward,
which is what guys have in their favour. I think it's something to do with
their hips. I know that I've been kicking directly backward for a long time.
This helps to balance out your body position. And I know Julia's starting
to do this now, and I can definitely see an improvement in her stroke."
Noticing that Penny has very long thighs, I asked
her "If you were to draw your knees up too much, you would get a lot
of resistance. Maybe your natural body build makes you want to keep those
thighs streamlined in line with your body, and also to use the strength
in those quadriceps muscles?"
"Yes, definitely," she said. "I
don't think it's so much strengthwe do a lot of leg workbut it's the efficiency
of catching the water. You've got to hold the water, and cut resistance
in every way you can."
Mentioning that too many breaststrokers apply too
much power in the early part of the kick, I asked Penny to talk about her
"It's difficult to think about it when you're
not in the water," she said (demonstrating). "But the way I think
about the kick is that, when you bring your feet up, instead of just kicking
back, like you would kick-start a motor bike, you want to flex your feet
outwards, and almost the whole bottom area of your legs should whip around,
rather than just go directly down.
"Without bringing the thigh forward, you want
to lift your ankles and the lower part of the legs back. The moment you
pike at the hips, and you draw your legs up, then you alter your body position,
and then you create resistance. I know they supposedly modelled this after
the Barrowman stroke, and the `wave technique.' "
The rest of our conversation on technique went
your arm action; when you start your stroke, and you go into the lateral
phase of the pull, what do you do with your hand on the wrist? Do you flex
your wrist, or do you keep your hand in line with your forearm?"
P: "Let's just break it down. To start the stroke, you want to keep the palms out, facing outwards. The reason for that is when you start bending your elbows, your elbows will be higher than your hands. A lot of breaststrokers, when they start pulling like this (demonstrates), this happens; the elbows drop."
get into the `praying mantis' position?"
P: "That's right. So, if you keep the palms of your hands out, that would be the easiest way for one to learn. It's almost like getting your fingers into a crack in the wall, and then you pull yourself through. O.K. So that's the first motion. After that, you want to try and keep your hand and forearm like a paddle. So this is the theory outside the water; I don't know exactly about when you're in the water. Obviously, you've got to get a feel for it, and I think that's where Julia and I are lucky; we tend to have a good feel for our strokes.
"At this point, you start to pitch your hands
more downward, and the idea is to then start sculling in, keeping your elbows
in front of your chest. And this sculling in motion also lifts your body
up, which allows you to breathe. I have the impression that a lot of swimmers
are coming up very high, and then going down, and they're causing a lot
"What we try to do when we scull in, is to
shrug the shoulders and drop the head, almost on the chest. Initially, for
breaststrokers trying this stroke, they will feel that their forward vision
is somewhat reduced. They can't see, it's a lot more obscure. But when you
get stronger, you'll lift up high enough, and you'll still be able to see
in front. The lift happens without your making it. If you try to make it
happen by using your kick, it will cause you to kick down, and you'll cause
a lot of resistance."
good breaststroke style is like a good butterfly stroke; either it's all
right or it's all wrong."
P: "I have the feeling, or the opinion, should I say, that you're either born with a talent for breaststroke or you're not. I mean it's very difficult. You can learn breaststroke, but I don't think you can be a top breaststroker without having a natural talent, a knack for it. It just seems to me that people who are in the top range seem to be more purely breaststrokers, and if they're lucky in that their other strokes are good, they can do I.M. You find people who are freestylers and backstrokers, who tend to be good in the other strokes except breaststroke. The breaststroke swimmer tends to be purely a breaststroker."
you ever swim the other strokes?"
P: (Laughs) "Very rarely. I did do the 50 free, and I've done the 200 I.M., but it's only been for college swimming because they needed me. It wasn't something I'd do internationally."
I asked Penny to tell me more about "Tubby"
Lynn's influence on her swimming.
"I don't know his first name," she said.
"Everyone calls him `Tubby,' but he doesn't look tubby. Well, he's
definitely had a big influence, and I still keep in contact with him. When
I go home, I always go and check my stroke with him. He's been responsible
for both my style, and for Julia's (Russell). A lot of the improvements
that we've had over the last three years can be attributed to Tubby."
I said "You both have beautiful techniques;
very fluent, a pleasure to watch."
Penny said "I think this is due to our background;
what we did when we were in South Africa. You know Julia is more accustomed,
I think, to the kind of training that we do here, incorporating a lot more,
not heavy miles, but distance to the point of doing between 5,000 and 6,000
yards, whereas, before, I used to just do sprints. I never knew what drills
were, or anything like that."
Asked her opinion about drills, Penny said "I
like them. I think they are necessary, especially my favourite, which is
`two kick, one pull.' However, Tubby doesn't really like it much because
he thinks you get into a bad habit of dipping too low under the water, and
sinking. But I can't do drills slowly. When I do a drill set, I'm just as
tired as I would be if I did a normal swimming set. And I think, in order
to get the benefit out of the `two-kick, one pull' drill, you have to go
hard, otherwise you do tend to sink, and that's going to start spoiling
Asked about the difference in her training since
arriving in Nebraska, and whether she did more distance work, Penny said
"It was always a steady increase each season. When I first came to
Nebraska, I swam with my coach's wife, Amy Tidball, before they got married.
She was a freestyle swimmer. During that season, I got accustomed to swimming
a little more distance, but nothing extreme, and just really getting settled
in the U.S."
Penny said that when she returned home to South
Africa for the summer, she worked out a great deal with Tubby. "I think
it was during that period of time that I really caught on to what I was
supposed to be doing with my stroke. That was between May and August, 1993.
"So, it was during that summer period that
I worked on my stroke and caught on to all Tubby's ideas. When I got back
to Nebraska, it was still one semester before Julia would join us. At that
stage I was the only female breaststroker on the team.
"There were two other male breaststrokers
on the team, and they happened to be European, so they gave those swimmers
to Jan (Bidrman). Jan wasn't an official coach at that stage. He was just
a grad assistant, in international business, I think. He was studying at
"I had a choice of swimming with Jan, half
a season, and the other half with Keith Moore, the sprint coach, and I said
to them that I would prefer to swim with one or the other for the whole
season. I don't want to chop and change.
"Then I spoke to Jan, and I felt very comfortable
with his philosophies about swimming, and I knew that he had a lot of experience
as an international swimmer himself. So I felt I had the confidence in him
as a coach."
Asked to describe Jan Bidrman's coaching philosophy,
Penny said "Well, I think, first of all, Jan isn't just the kind of
coach who stands on deck and dictates to you what to do. He taught me how
to get to know myself as a swimmer, basically, to be independent of the
coach, although still appreciate advice and whatever, which I think is very
important. He cares about the swimmers. He's not just a coach, he's a friend.
"The first thing he said to me when we met
each other and we decided he would coach me, is that, if I'm willing to
give 100%, he'll give a 100%. But it's all up to me. The committment must
come from me. He doesn't want me to come to the pool because he's standing
there. I must come because it's from me. And I really appreciated that honesty.
I knew then, if I put in all the effort, then he would be there for me."
"So, in other words, it would not be a one
"Yes. It's a two-way relationship, and I really appreciated that honesty. So I started swimming with Jan that season, and we were actually fortunate. It's a pity though for the other two swimmers, but the one was injured, and the other went home for a period of time. So I was the only swimmer swimming with Jan at the time, and that allowed him to really just see what I needed, and get to know me as a swimmer.
"At the same time, I got the work done that
I needed to get done. We slowly started setting goals each season, and,
every season, Jan believed that I needed to do something different to retain
my interest, and also to detect scope for improvement. In so doing, one
of the things was to increase the distance.
"Also, by the '94 / '95 season, I started
doing breaststroke pulling with paddles. Up until then, I hadn't (used them).
This last college season, I worked a lot more with stretch cords, swimming
against the resistance. Each season, we've thrown in something as an experiment.
It also breaks the monotony, and makes it fun.
"We experimented with introducing new items
to the program, but not too much, always still maintaining the control.
And, you know, I always feel I have the freedom with Jan to say that, at
a certain point of my training, `I'm sorry, maybe I just need a week away
from everyone. I'll see you again in a week.' And he trusts me enough to
know that I'm only doing it because I believe it's best for me and, if he
says to me `O.K. I agree you should do it,' then I know that I'm on the
The University of Nebraska's Media and Recruiting
Guide quotes Jan Bidrman's Coaching Philosophy as follows: "Athletes,
in co-operation with their coaches, need to form their opinions about training
and competition. Only when a coach and an athlete work together can an ultimate
goal be accomplished."
I suggested to Penny that what Bidrman had helped
her to achieve was really a greater realization of self. This came out in
everything she said in this interview.
"Yes, that's so," Penny agreed. "I
think it's really something he has imparted to us. You know, it's also up
to the swimmer though. Julia and I were talking, and it seems that the girls
in the squad have always performed better than the guys in the last two
seasons, but I think it is just because we have taken what he has given
us, and used it."
I comment "A lot of people think that, because
you have a coach, you automatically get better. The coach can only tell
you what to do, and how to do it, and, in the final criterion, something
has to come from the swimmer."
Penny agreed "Definitely, and I think, like
you said, sometimes I think that I think too much about my swimming and
my stroke, and everything."
"Well, I'm inclined to do so, at this period of my training (early season). It's the worst for me always, because I'm impatient. I want everything to happen now. I know what I need to do in my stroke."
"You don't look impatient!"
"I'm getting more control over it these days, Penny laughed. "But during the last college season, it was like the Devil was chasing me."
"You're not swimming college anymore?"
"No, I'm not," Penny confirmed.
I had heard a rumour that Penny may come to Canada,
and I asked her if that was correct.
"I may. Jan's got the head coach position
at Calgary. And, right now, I think the best thing for both him, and the
swimmers in the team at Calgary, and for me, is that he goes ahead, until
May, on his own. That gives him the opportunity to develop a relationship
with the swimmers there, without me being around. And then, Julia may also,
I don't know, go up for a while in the summer, but I'm definitely going
to go up in the summer for a while, and swim with Jan."
"Will you become affiliated to a Canadian
club, or am I going ahead of the piece?" I asked Penny.
"I don't know yet. I'll see what it's like
in Calgary. I don't want to just jump into a decision and move. I want to
first see what it's like, and then I'll decide. There are a lot of pro's
to moving, and there are a couple of things I'm not sure about. For instance,
if I move to Canada, I leave behind a very big support base in Lincoln.
Jan's biggest concern is that I would leave behind a lot of friends, because
there are a lot of South Africans there."
I asked Penny how important it was for her to represent
South Africa in international competition. She said "I think, as I'm
growing older, and realizing the privilege of making these international
teams, it's becoming more and more important. It really became important
to me after I had met President Nelson Mandela. Actually I met him in May
'95 briefly at the Presidential Sports Awards, and then this year (in March,
1996). After I had broken the world record, they flew me down, and I met
him and spoke to him at a private tea for about half an hour.
"First of all, he shook my hand, and said
he'd never wash his hand again. So I said I'd never wash mine! Then he wanted
to introduce me to his grandson; that was just a joke, but he indicated
that he was very pleased with all the young athletes in the country, and
that we were ambassadors, and that it was our responsibility to carry ourselves
well in international arenas of sport. Also he told me that he was pleased
with the world record, and wished me the best of luck for the Olympic Games,
and I said "Well, you know I'm now more inspired to go on, and try
and win the gold."
Penny commented on the public reaction when she
returned to South Africa, having won at the Olympics. "The hype was
a bit of a surprise to me. Already, I had got a feel for what it might be
like while I was still in Atlanta, because the media went quite wild, and
there was this building they called The Pavilion, just outside the village.
It was like "South Africa House," and I was forever being asked
to be there.
"It was either media, or it was somebody who
suddenly decided they would be a great agent for me. That was the most overwhelming
thing for me at the time, that people were suddenly talking money, and things
that I had never been accustomed to, and people were saying `Strike while
the iron's hot,' and `You've got to make these decisions now.' I didn't
know which way to turn, and my parents didn't really know either. But, fortunately,
I had some people from Nebraska there who helped me and advised me, and
it wasn't too bad.
"Because of that hype, I really expected it
would be bad when I got home. I really expected the worst, I think, and,
when I got there, I just dealt with it, one day at a time. It was wonderful
when we arrived at the airport, the whole of Johannesburg International
Airport was full of people. The response was great. The peopleI think more
the black peopletheir response to our achievements was just wonderful, and
we had a ticker tape parade through the streets of Johannesburg on the second
day we were back, and then the medal winners also had a bit of a banquet
and after that, we were driven to Pretoria where we met President Nelson
"It was just amazing. I mean it was something. I can't explain it, even now, after being in America for a month, and going back. I thought it would have died down, and it really was a surprise. When I got back home, people were still talking about the Olympics, and, especially about the swim team. I think they realised that the achievements of the swimmers were remarkable. They said, per capita, we did better than any country in the world."