Earning his country its first ever medal in triathlon at the Olympic Games in Rio, Henri’s Schoeman’s morning in Copacabana went exactly his way. If he were to engineer the perfect day out - the weather, the water, the terrain, the race circumstances – this would’ve been it. All he had to do was paddle, pedal and run his legs off for his best result ever, or since, in pro triathlon. Upsetting several medal favourites, he took bronze. Was it really that easy? Like with any major international sports success, at the pinnacle of triathlon with the highest of stakes – not likely. Here’s the story behind the fairytale.

To everyone watching, it looked like the stars aligned for a perfect set of race conditions. Sure, many factors faced Schoeman’s way. But what the record books don’t note is the struggle before the race even started. He was really ill a week before the race with a chest infection and a fever – lying in bed in tears, it was the darkest hour yet of an athlete about to take part in the biggest race of his life.

Working closely with the team doctor, with his start in question, he had one focus – recovery. Finally, the day before the race, he was given the go ahead. The word ‘relief’ wouldn’t come close to describing the emotions in the 24 hours leading up to the start siren. By Schoeman’s own admittance, the illness might have been a blessing in disguise, his attention diverted towards getting better and not fretting about the race. Also, on a tough course like Rio’s, putting aside his aggressive racing style, backing off and keeping something in reserve, proved to be the right approach.

Schoeman comes from a swimming background (his brother is an Olympian) and hailing from Durban, the warm sea swim suited him well. The no-wetsuits call also added to his advantage. For fans watching at home, all seemed to be going to plan, but after the race, Schoeman intimated otherwise, “I didn’t feel great, probably because I hadn’t done any training in the days before. I came out the water 6th or so and T1 (transition from swim to cycle) took ages because I could not get my helmet clip on – I must have lost well over 10 seconds. I just watched people run past me. I just told myself to calm down, and put it in slowly! I caught the race later on TV and I could see the panic!”

Critically though, he made it into the front group on the bike, with a big effort putting him in the red zone on the steep climb. While he was digging deep to stay in touch, the fateful split happened and he was the last rider to latch on. Now he was in a prime position: that small group of ten included the Brownlee brothers – both medalists in London, and race favourites. Their biggest threats Mario Mola and Richard Murray and other really fast runners were stuck back in the chasing pack.

The Brownlees drove the pace hard, growing the gap and putting pressure on Mola and Murray to do the chasing. But even though the cards were falling in Schoeman’s favour, staying in the front group was a tall order, with the steep cobbled climb putting a sting in the legs of all but the strongest riders. In a small group, he was obliged to contribute to the work to keep the pace high and this is where Schoeman’s racecraft shone. “I planned my turns at the front so that I would hit the front in the middle section of the flat road. Then I could get back in the slipstream and recover in time for the steep climb.” Each lap he knew he was another step closer to a good result.

Naturally we asked him how his bike handled the challenging and technical course. During the season he’d been switching between his Ultravox and Hypervox and seemed to be enjoying them both. Considering the road surfaces in Rio he’d initially opted for the Ultravox which is slightly more compliant. But faced with the possibility of finding himself in a small front group he wanted an aero advantage and switched to the Hypervox (he was right!) He changed setup to fit a standard handlebar for more feel and comfort. “In the race it was awesome – on the climb I felt that every watt went onto the road, and it handled the rough sections really well.”

When it came to the run, after some big efforts on the bike, Schoeman felt sluggish. A smooth T2 saw him in sixth, in touch with Varga on the front. Within seconds, the fast running Brownlees lit up the pace and Luis followed. Schoeman stayed cautious, keeping his own pace, patient. In the back of his mind he knew the quick runners like Mola and Murray would eat through the field.

Luis didn’t last long, dropping off the pace, overcooked. With Schoeman’s steady yet high pace he was soon lying in third. “I knew I just had to keep my rhythm. In last lap I started to cramp – my muscles had not being doing much in the last week.” With around 1km to go, Murray was almost upon him but a final dig held off the challenge. Joy, exhaustion, relief, and a lifetime of emotions… bronze was his.

Knowing his life would be changed forever, Schoeman still kept the poise that earned him national hero status. Mere days after, he was getting back to work – training for the upcoming racing and the following season. “Now I have a target on my back, and I am aiming for a gold medal in Tokyo, to beat those Brownlees!”

Well, as we all know, he’ll have to wait another year for that, and all things being equal, he’ll be on his new Racevox. It’s an all-rounder bike, developed with that tough and diverse Rio course always in the backs of our minds, designed to take on all the race conditions that a pro level course can throw at a world class racer. We can’t wait for Tokyo 2021.