This coming Monday, at half past six in the morning, the world’s fittest athletes will line up for the men’s Olympic triathlon. The wait is nearly over, and our man Henri Schoeman, bronze medallist in the Rio Games, is ready. 1500m swim, 40km bike ride and 10km run – this is the pinnacle of triathlon. It’s the discipline he was born to compete in, and the 2-hour event to which he’s dedicated his life.

Despite his status as an outsider in Rio in 2016, his masterful taper resulted in a podium spot, earning South Africa its first Olympic medal in triathlon, despite having suffered from a fever a few days before. This time around he’s referred to as one of the ‘big hitters’ in the field, with his big swim as his super power, good bike handling skill and bunch riding skills and world stage experience. The course suits the best swim-bikers. Plus Tokyo is hot, with the forecast predicting 30 degree heat, even at half past six in the morning. Henri lives in Durban, where he trains in the humidity and heat all year, and being one of the smaller athletes he’s likely to be less affected by it than the others. Perfect. Except that it’s never that simple.

No contender ever arrives at the start of any big race with a clean slate, with nothing to prove and no pressure. There’s always a pressure-cooker of baggage and circumstance, and the key to success is how they deal with it. The 2020 part of the name Tokyo 2020 for instance. We’re a year on from that date when the field initially aimed to have peak fitness, preparation for the big day had been highly varied, with some athletes under strict lockdown at inopportune times with others free to train.

Henri’s post cancellation training build-up ran smoothly, with South Africa being quick on the draw going into lockdown early in 2020 and emerging early too. He had some good results in the early half of the year too, capped off with a win at All Africa Championships. But he’s also had his share of difficulties. Traveling to races posed challenges. Like after the Yokohama WTS race, he found himself stuck at the airport unable to board the plane to Portugal where he was due to compete at Lisbon WTS. Also, shortly before his departure for Tokyo, civil unrest broke out in his hometown and rioters were looting shops only a few kilometres from his house, leaving them with no access to food and faced with the prospect (and stress) of temporarily relocating the family. Fortunately he was able to board a plane in time, to realise a dream and to claim another medal. Now he’s had to put that out of his mind and focus on the task at hand.

Of course Henri’s biggest obstacles are his rivals. 56 athletes are set to compete in the men’s event and unusually, the competition is wide open with no clear favourites. Henri’s been closely watching the progress of the likes of multiple world champions Mario Mola and Javier Gomez (silver in London 2012), and WTS stalwarts Kristian Blummenfelt, Vincent Luis and Jonny Brownlee (silver in Rio 2016, and bronze in London 2012). Then there are the dark horses: Jelle Geens, Morgan Pearson and Tyler Mislawchuk, plus the meteoric rise of relative newcomer Alex Yee, who won the 2021 Leeds WTS leg with apparent ease with a blistering run leg. Henri knows that he can match any of them physically at the highest level and that’s one of the points he’ll be focusing on as the hours count down.

On a psychological level, every top competitor aims for an edge. Some attribute Henri’s to his close relationship with his support team, most notably Joe Schoeman, his dad (and coach). While Henri is out training to capacity, emptying himself for maximum adaption each day, Joe is looking ahead, strategising. For instance, he prescribed highly specific training for the heat, which will be a major factor at the race. "We tested heat protocols in Tokyo during the Olympic test event back in 2019 (Henri placed ninth).” They went from a training camp in Phuket to Tokyo to see how it worked. With the Covid 19 travel restrictions they conducted assimilated heat environments instead, getting key training sessions done replicating the heat and humidity levels in Tokyo in late July (all while in the middle of a South African winter).

"We're doing the hard sets in the middle of the day, when it's at its hottest in Durban, South Africa. We're doing daily heat exposures. On alternate days, when Henri doesn't train as hard in the heat we'll do cycling or running in a heated tent (to about 70ºC) and immediately afterwards go and lie down in a hot bath at 40ºC for half an hour. What we're looking for is Henri's core temperature to go up. And then to passively extend the core. We've got a core temperature device that measures Henri all the time so as he trains we are aware of his core temperature the entire training set – I can see it on my phone or on his watch." According to Joe, "You want to sweat, you really want to sweat a lot!" Safe to say, Henri is prepared for the heat.

Joe and Henri will have looked closely at the course: Unlike Rio’s beach start, it’s a pontoon dive into the water, just off Odaiba Beach, and the main aim is for him to get the holeshot heading for the first buoy before two asymmetrical laps take the swim into Tokyo Bay towards Bird Island. Addressing concerns about the water conditions, organisers introduced a one-of-a-kind system of stirring and cooling generators with a three-layer bacteria barrier.

They’ll pop out of T1 in Seaside Park for eight 5km laps, through the West Promenade gardens up Wangan-doro Avenue and back past transition. It’s hardly hilly like in Rio but it’s demanding technically with several 90-degree corners and two dead turns. As one of the best swimmers in the world, Henri should be out front. The Olympic field is more diverse and less dense field so breaks are more likely to occur and this kind of bike route could play into the hands of a small lead group if they all cooperate well.

The 10km run comprises four 2.5km laps, circling the park and along the edge of Tokyo Bay then into the finishing straight, with three precious metal medals awaiting (fully recycled from old electronic devices incidentally).

Now all that’s left for him to do now is trust the process, clear the mind and swim, bike and run like he’s never done before.

Men’s race – Monday 26 July 2021 06:30 Tokyo
Women’s race – Tuesday 27 July 2021 06:30 Tokyo
Mixed relay – Saturday 31 July 2021 at 07:30 Tokyo
map of the courses