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Attitude Did It

Honourary Canadian...And Liking It


Karin Helmstaedt

After the World Championships in Perth, Penny Heyns toyed with the idea of retiring. But after much soul-searching, South Africa's double Olympic gold medallist decided to get back on track and focussed. Reunited with her coach, Jan Bidrman (now the coach of the National Centre in Calgary) since May 23, she started seeing the results of working with him almost right away.

"I missed having that connection with Jan, but didn't really want to leave Nebraska," said Heyns after the move to Alberta. "I took some time off after February to think about it. I prayed a lot and waited for a sign. Then Jan called me and told me to come to Calgary. It seemed to me that was the answer."

Penny Heyns missed Commonwealths but aims to defend Olympic titles
Click image for larger photo. Photo © Marco Chiesa

Of life in Calgary, she says, "It's great. I'm enjoying being an honourary Canadian! It helps to be around people like Joanne (Malar) and Lauren (van Oosten). It reminds me that it was attitude that did it." Since becoming her country's first ever Olympic gold medallist, Heyns has had lots of time for reflection. "After winning the medals, I became focussed on what everyone said around me," she says. "(The focus) shifted from doing best times to having to be number one all the time, whereas I had never worried about that at all before." Needless to say, that shift, along with a busy schedule of appearances, got the better of her. She muses, "In a way I feel I'd do some things differently if I could do it all again. I should have taken some time off (after the Olympics) to enjoy it all. Instead I tried to enjoy it all and meet the expectations I felt were being made on my swimming."

A hectic period before the world championships saw her trying "all sorts of different things." A track and field oriented program with lots of high intensity and sprint work. "It got me in shape pretty quickly," she says ruefully. "But wasn't much to taper from." Her experience at the Worlds in January was a polar opposite to that in Atlanta.

"The 100 breaststroke in Perth was so funny," she says, laughing. "I was so focussed on Sam (Riley), and I think she was focussed on me. Here we were the experienced veterans who are supposed to know better...and I thought if I outtouched her, I would have won. Then I turned around, and I was 5th! I just laughed. We got touched out by all these younger girls....I thought it was hysterical."

Moving to Canada meant getting back in touch with her stroke. "Jan remembers what it was that made everything work," she says. "He reminds me of those things that I've forgotten."

Despite having missed out on her Commonwealth Trials, Heyns spent some months "just racing and trying to fix my stroke." By early June she posted a 1:10.93 for 6th place in Monaco in the 100 breaststroke. "I think we'll just play with the stroke this season and get a feel for it again. The real work will begin after Commonwealth Games," she said then.

By July there was no doubt the work with Bidrman was paying off. Heyns set a world record in the 50 breaststroke en route to the 100 (1:09.46) at the Goodwill Games in New York. She also won the 200 in a fast 2:26.73. "It feels good to finally be back!" she enthused afterward. "I am very pleased with my swims in New York, especially because the format was so tough and my times were consistent throughout the competition. The 50 was a real bonus and I must give credit to Jan for thinking of trying for the record."

A $50,000 bonus for a world record performance, however, was reduced to $10,000. Heyns, who is financing her life in Calgary herself, remained good-natured. "I was told before my swim that if I broke the record there would be no money, so the money they did give me was more than I expected." she says. "I can't complain. Of course $50,000 would have come in handy but I have never been one to swim for money in the past and I'm not about to let that become my motivation now."

Not having been asked to join South Africa's Commonwealth Games team, Heyns has decided to enjoy an extra two weeks holidays in South Africa, where she intends to live one day. "I feel a responsibility to use those gold medals to help the country and the people," she says. She says her faith is the mainstay of her life, and she hopes to be ordained into the Ministry when her swimming career is over. She is already involved in a number of projects to help undernourished and sexually abused children worldwide. "The Lord is building me up for something. I look at everything I'm doing now as a deposit."

"I still don't feel like I'm in Olympic form yet...but well on my way."

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