‘PAVING THE WAY’
WITH RENZO TJON A JOE
We had the pleasure to spend the day with talented Surinamese swimmer and Olympic athlete Renzo Tjon A Joe. Discussing his journey, we asked him about the support network that helped pave his way to the podium. Made up of friends, family, teammates and coaches.
“There are few people in this world that will believe in you like your mom, and that's definitely true for me.”
Walking through the park on the way to practise, Renzo talks affectionately about the beginning of his swimming career back home in Suriname. Reminiscing about the time and effort that his mom poured into his passion.
“In the beginning of my career she went to a lot of businesses in Paramaribo and asked for sponsorships. Scraping together 30, 50, 100 dollars at a time to get tickets to send me to training camps or international swim meets. She put me in the position to be able to explore my talents, interests and education.”
For any athlete physical ability is only half the battle, and when you find yourself in a tough mental spot, having a confidant who can ground you is incredibly important. So whilst competing in competitions abroad, Renzo often relied on his dad for an objective ear and some sage advice.
“My dad is kind of a philosopher, you know? He's very good at putting things into perspective for me. Outlining exactly where I started, to where I am now. He never saw swimming as something I would do professionally. He still jokes around and says "this is recreational", and that silliness calms me a lot. It makes me not take myself too seriously. Especially now, having already done two Olympics and going for my third. He says, "everything you achieve now is a bonus."
Arriving at one of his training locations in Amsterdam, teammate, dutch record holder, and olympic finalist Thom De Boer joins us for some laps in the pool. Having just recently started swimming the Dutch National Team full time, we chatted about how Renzo ended up here, and the coaches that have shaped him along the way.
“From a young age it was just me and my coach from Suriname, running 5 am practices, coming back in the afternoon, trying to figure out where to go next, and going to training camps in the US.”
A combined effort that eventually landed him at the 2013 Junior World Championships in Dubai. Where Renzo made it to the 50m freestyle final and caught the attention of a notable coach. “That's when I was recruited to go to Auburn University to swim under Brett Hawke, who's one of the greatest sprint coaches alive today. Having also trained Olympic Gold Medalist Cesar Cielo in the 50m freestyle. A Brazilian athlete that I really looked up to.”
After finishing highschool at the age of eighteen, Renzo moved to the US to swim for Auburn. Although a dream-come-true, it was still a big change - but one that he felt prepared for.
“A lot of people in Suriname worked hard so that I could find success in the US. It really took a village - not just my parents. Teachers, uncles, my older brother and younger sister. They all played a large role, and it really felt as if the country was counting on me to see things through.”
With such support, Renzo found himself on his way to competing in two Olympic Games. First in 2016 in Rio, where he missed the Semi-Final by a tenth of a second. A disappointing result for him, but one that made him eager to prove himself at the next games in Tokyo. Then Covid hit, in the midst of a great personal season. As countries closed and big teams locked up their athletes, Renzo was forced to move from Florida back to Paramaribo. Where, without training facilities and closed public pools, he swam in the Amazon River. After several months of this and no form structure or income, Renzo hit a crossroads, deciding to get a job and stop swimming. Nevertheless, the Tokyo Olympics were always in the back of his mind. “I came to a point in December 2020 in which I told myself, "if you're not gonna go next year, you're gonna regret this for the rest of your life."
"if you're not gonna go next year, you're gonna regret this for the rest of your life."
Pools started opening again and I had 6 months to prepare for the Olympics. During that time I texted the head coach in the Netherlands Mark Faber, asking if I could swim in the Netherlands with them - at least to train and prepare for the Tokyo Olympic games.”
Sadly, due to continued lockdowns, he was unable to join the Dutch team in their training. Renzo did however, get confirmation from the head coach that they would have a place for him on the team after the games were over. Which became a real source of motivation.
“Communicating this to my family and my coaches in Suriname, everyone rallied around me saying "listen, you have to keep going." The mere fact that the Netherlands wanted me on their team was insanely motivating, and I knew that joining such an established team would give me a second chance at greatness.”
“After I got the news, I booked a one-way ticket from Tokyo to Amsterdam, where my sister started to furnish my room. Not soon after I was in the Netherlands, winning the Dutch Championship title for the 100 metre freestyle only eight months later. A win that has helped me pave the way to competing in the Paris 2024 Olympics. Where I aim to put myself in a position to fight for a medal.”
Now, with the big move behind him, Renzo is settled in Amsterdam and often spends quality time with his sister, uncle and cousins. Joining them for their weekly family dinner at his uncle's house, we talked about missing home, creativity and how he wants to be remembered.
“Much of Surinamese family culture revolves around food. Uncle Ruben, my mom's brother, carries that with him. He’s just one of those OG’s that makes you feel at home, away from home. I don’t get to see my parents as much as I’d like to since they live in Suriname, so having a place you can go every Sunday to be surrounded by family and amazing home cooked meals is a blessing.”
When Renzo isn’t swimming or eating delicious home cooked meals, he spends time with his friends. He also hopes to pursue his creative ambitions more, even-though his educational background is centred around Economics and Private Equity.
“I would love to delve into my creative side more, because I come from a very creative family myself. Writers, painters, photographers and all-around artists. You name it, we got it.” Pursuing a balanced life is important, and having already accomplished much in the swimming world, we asked Renzo how he wants to be remembered, and his answer was simple: “I want to be remembered as someone who found a way to stand amongst the greats.”
“I want to be remembered as someone who found a way to stand amongst the greats.”