Now, more than ever, he knows he made the right decision. Because nothing in the world beats that feeling when, with a gold medal around your neck, you look up at the Rainbow Flag being raised and listen to your country’s national anthem.
Roland Schoeman’s South African heart burst with pride this past week as he became the most successful SA participant in more than 70 years at the Commonwealth Games with his three golds and one bronze medal in the pool.
However, had Schoeman in the middle of last year decided to steer his career and his life in a different direction, the events here in Melbourne would have been but a dream. Because then he stood before a momentous decision – representing your country of birth on the international stage for nothing but pride, or a big fat bank account and standing under the flag of an adoptive country? He thought about it long and hard, but in the end swimming for South Africa until he no longer could won over Qatar and its millions.
And, says Schoeman today, he doesn’t regret anything.
“There has been no single second of doubt whether I made the right decision. It was right and it’s still right. I am a South African from Africa, it’s part of my identity and it’s part of who I am.
“To be able to hear the national anthem again was indescribable. It was truly a thing I will never forget, even if I am grey and old and the memory is no longer what it use to be.”
In the end, he did not pack his bags for Qatar, and for the time being he is also staying in Arizona where he has honed his skill and worked meticulously on his rise in world swimming. Schoeman says he very much wants to return to South Africa because he misses his country, family and friends. For now, however, it is necessary that he has his bed in a foreign land.
“For practical reasons, it’s best that I have my base in Arizona. My coach and all the amenities are there. Of course I want to go back to South Africa, when exactly I don’t know, but it’s going to happen, without a doubt.
“The 2012 London Olympics are on the horizon and a big event in my career. Maybe I’ll come back sooner, who knows. At the moment it’s impossible to say.”
Schoeman walked away with gold in the 4×100 relay, 50 butterfly and 50 freestyle at the Commonwealth Games. He had to settle for a bronze in the 100 freestyle, behind compatriot Ryk Neethling who won the silver medal. But he says he is still proud of his status as South Africa’s most successful participant in Melbourne and the most successful since 1930.
“When I heard it, I was quite surprised and couldn’t really believe it. It’s hard to put into words what happened to me over the past week.
“I didn’t feel well for a couple of days. I was sick and my body was sore and I felt it especially in the 100 freestyle. I’ve never been so sore, from start to finish, I had no energy.
“That was where I was at that moment. But instead of taking the easy way out, sitting on the sidelines and watching things from there, I decided to proudly represent my country. I am not at my best and even though I did not win a medal, I wanted to represent South Africa with everything in me.”
The 25-year-old Schoeman has not only established himself as the world’s leading short distance swimmer during the past 18 months. His performance at the Athens Olympics and the World Championships in Montreal where he won handfuls of medals and set numerous records has elevated him to one of South Africa’s most successful sportsmen. This is the status he hopes will have a positive impact on the country’s youth.
“I know there are a lot of young people who look up to guys like me. It is an incredibly great honor and privilege to be seen as a role model. I am delighted to be seen in such a light. ”
He only started swimming when he was 16 years old. In the last 10 years, everything he had hoped for happened, Schoeman says. And he’s not done, not by a long shot.
“On the one hand, I surpassed my highest expectations and things happened that I never thought possible. On the other hand, everything happened exactly as I saw and planned it. I always wanted a gold medal at the Olympics and now I have.
“I have two mottos in life that constantly drives me. One is ‘Believe the impossible’ and the other is ‘Regard all things as possible’. So yes, I have never been surprised by what has happened to me. But I have always been deeply grateful for everything that has come my way.”