Penny Heyns is undoubtedly one of South Africa’s favourite daughters and arguably one of the greatest female breaststroke swimmers of all time.
The Golden Girl – winner of two Olympic gold medals at Atlanta in 1996 – was more than a world-class athlete in the pool, she was a world-class ambassador outside of it, championing both the new South Africa and a lifestyle of discipline and humility led in accordance with Christian principles.
Heyns showed early signs that she could become a top-class swimmer and as a result was offered a bursary to study at the University of Nebraska in the United States. She accepted the bursary and was immediately exposed to a higher level of competition. Flourishing, Heyns improved from year to year, winning the NCAA breaststroke titles at 100 and 200 metres against the top college swimmers in the USA.
Olympic medal favourite
Her improvement took her from thirty-second best time in the 100 metres and thirty-third best in the 200 metres in the Barcelona Olympics as a 17-year-old to a medal favourite in the 100 metres for the Olympic Games in Atlanta four years later.
Her status was further enhanced when she broke the world record at the South African National Championships in 1996. She was, however, expected to face stiff competition from Australia’s Samantha Riley for the Olympic title.
In Atlanta, Heyns was one of the most dominating swimmers of the Olympic competition, winning the 100 metres breaststroke in a world record time of 1:07:02 and claiming a second gold in the 200 metres in an Olympic record time of 2:25:41. She was one of the stars of the Games, and an instant national heroine in South Africa.
Unfortunately for Heyns, a significant change in her swimming life took place after the Atlanta Games when her coach, Jan Bidrman, moved to Canada to coach at Calgary University. With huge demands on her time following her Olympic successes and minus her coach, Heyns’ performances fell off and she was below par for the World Student Games and World Championships in Perth, where she finished fifth in the 100 metres and sixth in the 200 metres.
Big career decision
Heyns made a big decision to get her career back on track, moving to Calgary to link up once more with Bidrman. This allowed her to train with Canada’s national swimmers, and she quietly went about the business of getting herself into shape for the Pan Pacific Championships in Sydney in preparation for the 2000 Olympic Games in the same swimming pool.
Her top form arrived somewhat earlier than either Heyns or Bidrman had been expecting. Heyns was competing in the low-key Janet Evans meet in Los Angeles in mid-July 1999, unshaved and untapered (unrested), when she totally rewrote the world record book.
On Saturday, 17 July, she qualified for the final of the 200 metres with a time of 2:24:69, breaking the five-year-old world record of Australia’s Rebecca Brown. Amazingly, she went on to better that time in the evening’s final, winning in 2:24:51.
“This is really amazing because I still get to the wall and feel like I have something left. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would do this,” Heyns said afterwards.
Cracked the 1:07:00 barrier
However, her 200 metre world records tell only half the story. In the 100 metre heats, Heyns became the first woman ever to go below the 1:07:00 mark, edging through it at 1:06:99 and breaking her world record in the process. Again, unbelievably, she bettered her time in the final, touching the wall in an astounding 1:06:95.
Kaitlin Sandeno, runner-up in the 200 metres, described Heyns’ performances as “awesome”, while fellow South African Olympic swimmer Ryk Neethling said: “If something like that doesn’t inspire you, I don’t know what will. She’s awesome.”
It didn’t end there, though. For the next two months it seemed that every time Heyns took to the water she broke a record. At the Pan Pacific Championships in Sydney she further improved her 100 metres record to 1:06:52.
‘I knew I was going to do it’
“To be honest, I knew I was going to do it as soon as I dived in,” Heyns said. “I was unshaved and untapered when I broke the records in Los Angeles. I knew I could go faster here, although you never take world records for granted.”
Competing in a specially arranged 50 metres time trial, Heyns continued on her roll, slashing 0.12 seconds off her world record mark as she touched the wall in 30.83 seconds.
In March 2000 tragedy struck when she lost one of her closest friends, Canadian breaststroker Tara Sloan, in a car crash. Heyns was at her hospital bedside when she died, and admitted later that Sloan’s death had “tired me out emotionally”. It also affected her training for the Sydney Olympics, and she chose to withdraw from the World Shortcourse Championships in Athens.
The queen of breaststroke was not at her best at the Sydney Games, failing to qualify for the final of the 200 metres and finishing third in the 100 metres, but in true Penny Heyns fashion, she accepted her results with dignity.
On 20 September 2000, Heyns announced her retirement from swimming, having set 14 world records and become the only woman in history to complete the Olympic double of winning both the 100 and 200 metres breaststroke. The deeply religious Heyns declared: “God has better things in mind for me.”
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