The first thing you notice about Tilka Paljk is that she is bubbly. At nine in the morning over a Zoom call on a Wednesday she was full of personality and raring to go. Having just recovered from COVID-19, I asked her how she was feeling. She gleefully told me she was grateful to have fully recovered, and shared, “My heart took quite a beating. It’s a little enlarged and I get heart palpitations when I exert myself, even with simple things like chasing my dogs around.”
Tilka is one of the top professional swimmers to come out of Zambia, with an impressive record and several medals to back it up. She recently became the first female Zambian swimmer to ever reach the semi-finals at the Commonwealth Games and has qualified for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics as a wild card. Her journey has been paved with challenges but her innate spirit of perseverance has seen her be triumphant.
Following the death of her mother in 2014 Tilka moved to South Africa to live with one of her guardians. She explains, “I was 17 at the time and travelled to South Africa to look for universities but nothing seemed to be a good fit. My aunt and I were having coffee one day when she suggested that I go to TuksSports high school, a high-performance school. I was a bit confused because I had just finished high school but as fate would have it the head swim coach at the school encouraged me to start the following week and redo my final year to train with the team at the school.”
As a successful athlete Tilka believes that one of the greatest attributes an athlete can have aside from discipline and determination is hunger.
TuksSport High School in Pretoria offered her a placement and Tilka started school immediately with the hopes that this would help her continue to compete professionally. However, Tilka quickly realised that she would be graduating in 2015 and the Olympics were in 2016. She went to the principal and asked to be put back a year into grade eleven so that she could train and have a shot at the Olympics. It is that kind of quick thinking, determination and courage that has taken Tilka far in her swimming career. In 2016 she tried but was unsuccessful in qualifying for the Olympics and this sent her into a depression and saw her grades start to drop.
After picking herself back up she was awarded a scholarship to SPIRE Swimming Academy in Geneva, Ohio and left for America in March 2017 to train for a year. It was like nothing she had ever experienced. “It was challenging, the training was so difficult and I liked that challenge. I do wish I had had a better coach-swimmer relationship then because I know now how that really makes a difference. Having a coach who is there to hear you out, and listen to you makes all the difference when you are training.”
The schedule at SPIRE was challenging because her body was under a lot of pressure with both diet and training that included two two-hour swim practices as well as intense cardio sessions and weight training. Tilka reflects, “It took a bit of a toll on me and I started seeing a psychologist and she was really great and she really just helped me get through the tough time I was having.”
I’ve overcome mental health issues with the help of a lot of people, medication and medical professionals. I have seen psychologists, psychiatrists and I have the support of my family, and I’m grateful that I have a support system that for the most part understands.”
After training in America Tilka went back to South Africa where she trains under coach Gerhard Zandberg, a former Olympic swimmer for South Africa. Their relationship is a tough but special one as he pushes her to be the best but Tilka says, “We have that relationship where I can be honest and say ‘Today I am broken, I won’t be able to physically finish this set’ and he can tell me to take it easy.”
As a successful athlete, Tilka believes that one of the greatest attributes an athlete can have besides discipline and determination is hunger. She says, “The hunger to do well, be better and achieve success can determine how well you compete.” Tilka continues, “I am my own motivation. It really comes down to how badly you want it. What does it mean to you as a person? When people do this to prove other people wrong or right then there’s no deeper meaning to it. I do this for me and it means so much more to me when I succeed.”
As for the future, right now Tilka is focused on her training for the Tokyo 2021 Olympics. Her training schedule post COVID-19 recovery is gruelling. Monday to Friday she is up at 4:30 am and at the gym at 5 am. Tilka works out at a private gym in Pretoria with a strength and conditioning coach that took her coach, Gerhard, to the Olympics. I ask her where she thinks she will be in ten years and she tells me that she hopes she can make a difference in Zambia. She would like to be influential in the public eye or possibly in the political sector.
As for her favourite quote, Tilka shares that she wishes it was some deep, philosophical quote but it’s not. She laughs and says, “As shallow as it sounds my favourite quote is, ‘It is, what it is’ and I use it almost every day. For example, I got COVID. I was devastated I couldn’t go to training camp or race. I can’t do anything about that. It is what it is and I have got to move on. There are a lot of things that have happened in the past year, that are out of our control and we’ve got to just pick ourselves up and make a plan”.