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Tuesday, September 12, 2000

Canada special to pool's Penny

  SYDNEY -- Speculation in the local newspapers is that South African swimming star Penny Heyns has a secret desire to compete for Canada, and that somewhere underneath her swimsuit is a tattoo of the Maple Leaf.

 "I don't really know how to answer that," Heyns said this week. "I'm South African and I'll always feel a sense of loyalty to South Africa. But I do feel like an honorary Canadian. Without Swimming Canada and the people in Calgary, I wouldn't be in this position."

 Heyns' links to Canada began in early 1998 when she was facing a slump in her swimming career after failing to win a medal at the world championships.

 "I was miserable," the double gold medallist from the 1996 Atlanta Games said. "I had no peace. People were telling me to quit, that I had already accomplished enough."

 Dispirited, Heyns decided to rejoin her college coach, Jan Bidrman, at the Canadian high performance centre in Calgary. The move was regenerating, so much so that she set 11 breaststroke world records between July 1999 and September 1999. The marks she set in the 100-metre breaststroke (1:06.52) and the 200-metre breaststroke (2:23.64) still stand.

 Now, at 25, Heyns is in position to defend her 100-metre breaststroke gold at the Sydney International Aquatic Centre. She is considered one of the best swimmers in the world, and the joke in swimming circles is that Heyns is the only real shot Canada has of winning gold in the pool.


 The personable swimmer has trained in the University of Calgary pool alongside Canadian stars Curtis Myden and Joanne Malar for two years. In fact, the native of Amanzimtoti, which is Zulu for "The Place of Sweet Waters," has become an integral part of the Canadian program.

 In the weeks before the Games, Heyns trained with Canucks in the northern Australian town of Cairns. She continues to work out here in Sydney with the Canadian team.

 Heyns, a born-again Christian, can't say enough good things about what living and training in Canada has done for her as a swimmer and a person.

 "I know that I'll probably return to South Africa someday and serve the ministry, but it will be a bittersweet time in my life. I certainly will miss Canada. I'll even miss the weather, if you can believe that," she said.

 Along with hurdler Llewellyn Herbert, Heyns is considered the best shot for a South African gold. Given her performance in Atlanta and the way she set the world on fire last year with all the record-setting times, she is one of the most popular athletes in her country.

 Still, Heyns, who is white, was criticized recently in South Africa for the Springbok tattoo she sports on her right shoulder. To many blacks, the Springbok is a symbol of apartheid.

 "But I didn't mean it that way," Heyns said.

 Gary Lemke, a South African journalist, said most black South Africans still adore her.

 "Even is she does have a Maple Leaf tattoo somewhere."