Champions of South African swimming

World Records and Medalists 1900 - 1960

In the first period we had minor success with two relay medals, and Olympic Record and a bronze and a gold medal in 1956. In what was to become a feature of the South African sporting scene, emigrant swimmer Natalie Steward of Pretoria set a world record and won two Olympic medals for Great Britain, by way of Rhodesia. 

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World Records and Medalists 1961 - 1991

During the decades of isolation South Africans continued to achieve some success. In women's backstroke Johannesburg schoolgirl Ann Fairlie and Karen Muir of Kimberley dominated international women's backstroke - setting many world records - despite being excluded from international competition. In fact - the competition - Olympic gold medalist Cathy Ferguson of the USA, world record holder Elaine Tanner of Canada and Olympic silver medalist Kiki Caron of France came to South Africa to compete against the world record holders - and were beaten by them. In 1976 Selborne College graduate from East London - and surf lifesaving Springbok - Jonty Skinner, set a world record in the 100m freestyle, breaking Jim Montgomery's gold medal winning time in the Montreal Olympics. Fellow East Caper and Port Elizabeth swimmer Peter Williams set a new world record in the 50m freestyle in 1988. Both men were part of the South African swimming for American universities.

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World Records and Medalists - post 1991

After allowing South Africa back into world competition, it didn't the swimmers long to re-assert themselves on the international stage. In 1996 Penny Heyns began breaking world record in women's breaststroke events, taking both gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics and become the women's swimmer of the year - in 1996 and 1999. With deaf swimmer Terence Parkin taking silver in the 200m breaststroke and Penny Heyns bronze in the 100m breaststroke, the big success came at the Sydney Olympic Games in 2004, when the South African men won gold in the 4x100 freestyle relay, in a world record time - an event before only ever won by swimming powerhouses the USA and Australia. South African swimming was truly back on the map!

In the 2012 London Olympic Games home-grown talent Chad le Clos surprised the world by beating the great Michael Phelps to take gold in the men's 200m butterfly, plus silver in the 100m, and world record holder Cameron van der Burgh won gold in the 100m breaststroke.

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Empire and Commonwealth Games medalists

The second largest sporting mega event, after the Olympic Games, is the Commonwealth Games. South Africa has participated in the Empire and Commonwealth Games from 1930 - until it became a republic in 1961 - and again since 1994.

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South African aquatic stars

Besides these champions, South Africa has produced a number of aquatic stars like para-Olympian Natalie du Toit, Princess Charlene of Monaco, Cape Town boy and marathon man Lewis Pugh, open water champion Jo'burg native Keri-Ann Payne, Capetonian world champion triathlete Simon Lessing and international iron woman Durbanite Paula Newby-Fraser and others.

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Local Heroes of South African swimming.

During the boycott years the local scene had its own heroes - competitors who might have left South Africa to compete overseas, but chose to stay, or like Annette Cowley, were forced to stay. Swimmers like Graham Hill, Gerhard van der Walt and Craig Jackson who won multiple titles at nationals - emulating the greatest local legend - Karen Muir.

The impact South African swimmers  have had since re-admission hints at the true loss of 30 years of international participation - surely some of them would also have made it on the international stage.

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The world record breaking 4x100m freestyle relay team - with an unhappy-looking Michale Phelps in the background.

More in this category: « Alex Bulley Aquatic Sports »

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