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Tayla Jonker is all smiles at the 2024 World Aquatics Championships in Doha. Picture: ANTON GEYSER/GALLO IMAGES
Tayla Jonker is all smiles at the 2024 World Aquatics Championships in Doha. Picture: ANTON GEYSER/GALLO IMAGES

The 2024 world aquatics champs in Doha may have been different in more than one sense, unusually being held in February, and with many of SA’s swimming old guard not in attendance.

But the championships did show that green shoots are sprouting, not only in the swimming but in the coaching sphere too.

SA brought home only one medal, Pieter Coetzé’s bronze in the 200m backstroke. But it was his fellow backstroker, in the shapes of Tayla Jonker, and her coach Gideon du Toit, who perhaps showcased the future of SA swimming.

Jonker didn’t make a final but she did make a semifinal after setting a SA record of 28.37 sec in the 50m backstroke heats.

Between swimmer and coach, the Pretoria pair boast a combined age tally of only 50! The Players Swim product is just 19 and coach Du Toit is 31 which makes him one of the youngest top-level coaches in the country.

So this combo could well go on to make waves in pools around the world in the next decade.

Jonker is Pretoria-born and bred. “I started swimming lessons in grade 3, got a trophy for best swimmer and my parents decided to send me to lessons at Learn to Swim school and I had so much fun.

“In grade 6 I was getting better and better and my parents said, let’s upgrade to a swimming club, and I went to Jan and Wilma Nel at Diadora.”

It turned out too much fun doesn’t work all the time. “I still used to do flips and handstands and Jan got very irritated and called my parents and asked if I wanted to be a real swimmer!”

She freely admits that was her first mental mind shift in her swimming career... “I thought to myself that maybe I can do this successfully till I’m older”.

It wasn’t easy, though. “We would train for three hours in the morning, then an hour’s land training and then two hours in the afternoon, which is very hard for a 12-year-old.”

Flipping through the years and Jonker joined Players Swim after the Nels moved to Cape Town. There she was coached by Olympian Trudi Maree (who then moved to Dubai), then by Grant Kritzinger (who moved on to Malta) and since 2018 her and coach Du Toit’s paths have been as one!

Says Du Toit: “I’m definitely one of the younger coaches of high-level swimming in SA. We have about 100 swimmers at Players Swim at Menlo Park High but I have to say that Tayla is my most competitive.

“She really keeps me on my toes. She’s easy to coach as she’s very disciplined and strict with her routine but she’s also very straightforward when it comes to what she thinks and what she feels.”

Jonker’s international career didn’t get off to the start she was hoping for. Chosen as part of Team SA for the Region 5 Youth Games in Lesotho in 2021, she tested positive on three occasions for Covid-19 and had to forfeit her spot. In any event, the whole team ended up heading home after just a few days of competition.

Her first international experience was the World University Games in China in August 2023. “An amazing experience... meeting the senior SA team, swimming with some of the best swimmers in the world. I made finals in 50m backstroke, broke my own age group record and missed a medal by 0.29 sec.”

To get that far, though, she’d made another big shift in her training regime by roping in more expertise. 

“I wasn’t doing gym, and wasn’t eating properly. So I opted for both. Nicky de Villiers, my dietitian helped me so much, teaching me how to eat for training and what to eat for a gala and what to eat more of and what to eat less of. It turned out I was eating way too little for the training I was doing.

“I started proper gym at Emile de Bruin’s Meta4mance and the change was remarkable. I couldn’t do one pull-up, now I do multiple pull-ups with weights attached.”

Tayla Jonker and her coach, Gideon du Toit. Picture: SUPPLIED
Tayla Jonker and her coach, Gideon du Toit. Picture: SUPPLIED

Her second international meeting was a World Cup in Greece in October 2023 where she says she felt a bit disappointed with her results. “But in hindsight I saw the positive when I saw the huge names I’d been swimming with at my young age.”

She didn’t think she’d make the cut for the World Champs but she, Du Toit (and yet another Du Toit, physiotherapist Narita) and De Bruin put in a combined effort.

“It wasn’t actual swimming, but technical and mental improvement. We worked on underwater skills, the actual dive, the gliding in, did activation exercises with a band outside the water, and more.

“And Emile also helped with the mental aspects. Two quotes still stick with me now: focus on processes and not the outcome, and there’s no such thing as failure, only feedback.”

At the World Champs itself she remembers all 50m of her African record: “I focused on every little process I had to do. I pushed off as fast as I could, counted my kicks, made sure the last 5m I got exactly into the wall without gliding.”

She had great advice from multiple Olympian and Commonwealth Games swimmer Erin Gallagher, one of her swimming heroines. “She told me, ‘Soak up every moment, you have to remember you are in Doha for world championships, what is going to happen is going to happen, and you’re good enough to be here.’ That really stuck in my mind.”

With the 50m backstroke not being an Olympic event, the focus will now shift to the 100m backstroke at the Paris Games laterin 2024.

Back to coach Du Toit. “Tayla’s next comp is the African championships in Ghana in two weeks where she’ll do the 50 and 100m backstroke and the 100m back in the relay and see if she can get that 100m back time down.

“Then there are senior nationals in Gqeberha in April and now that she’s confident with swimming a 28sec-low ... if she can turn 29-flat in the 100m she can go a minute, or a minute-low in the 100m back.

“Hopefully that gets her to the Paris Olympics but in the long term we’ll just look for downward progress in her times, a little bit faster each time. At worlds we saw the other girls are still dominating us on the starts and in underwater areas so there’s room for improvement there — we’ll just work on getting her stronger and fitter and then see where the magic takes us.”

For now, though, Jonker, a second-year quantity surveying student at Tuks, is focusing on swimming — and a daily caffeine fix at her local Seattle Coffee house every morning — before she takes the next quantum leap in her aquatic adventure.

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