Annette Cowley attended Settlers High in Bellville, and she was a Western Province and Springbok swimmer and lifesaver, coached by Tom Fraenkel. She won 6 titles at nationals in 983 and 1984, beating the record of Karen Muir, who also won also won six gold medals in 1967, but she was beaten by Canadian Olympic medallist Elaine Tanner in three of those events. Paul Blackbeard also won 6 golds in 1975, plus three golds in the relays.
In 1983 Annette also set a world record in the 200m obstacle race at the South African life saving championships - winning Springbok colours for both swimming and life saving that year.
She joined the ranks of the swimming exiles South Africa in 1985 to swim at the university of Texas team under coach Richard Quick. In 1988 the Texas women's team made history when they won the NCAA title five years in a row - and Annette became an All American in helping them achieve that. Annette is on the left, in the back.
In May 1986 Annette competed in the ASA British nationals in Coventry, where won both 100 and 200 m freestyle events. She progressed to being world ranked 5th for the 100 and 7th in the 200 freestyle at that time. As she had a British mother, she was eligible to represent Great Britain. As the fastest British swimmer, she had hopes of selection to compete at the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. At the same time, Bloemfontein athlete was Zola Budd was also vying for selection, and the two South Africans in the British team resulted in a political storm that saw both being excluded from the British team.
When South Africa was re-admitted to world swimming in 1991 Annette decided to have one more go at making it to the Olympics. At the 1992 Olympic trials in Durban she won second place in the 50 and 100 - both times to WP team mate Marianne Kriel - who was later to win a silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. Kriel's time for the 100 broke Annette's SA record, set in 1984. Unfortunately for Annette - and the new post-SAASU selectors - two second places at nationals was not enough to be selected for the first South African team to compete in the Olympic Games since 1960.
Annette re-appeared in the swimming press briefly when the Commonwealth Games were once again hosted by Scotland - Edinburgh in 2014. She featured in a BBC documentary titled Boycotts and Broken Dreams, and the following interview with Annette appeared in the English Sunday Times on 24 july 2014:
‘I put on a brave face but I did cry’
The South African-born Annette Cowley has finally swum in the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games pool after her boycott pain of 1986
“THEY say water is a great healer,” notes Annette Cowley, having finally swum in the pool she hoped to compete in at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Today is the 28th anniversary, right down to the day of the week, that she was escorted from the athletes’ village by police officers after the Commonwealth Games Federation ruled the South African-born swimmer would not be allowed to compete for England. She was a 19-year-old girl who became a political pawn, caught up in a boycott by 32 countries that saw the lowest turnout since the post-war Games of 1950 in response to the Thatcher government’s attitude towards apartheid.
Now a mum of three, Cowley returned to the pool with a BBC crew recently for a documentary that will be screened this week. It brought back all the old emotions — measures of bitterness, frustration, injustice — but also some belated catharsis for being unable to compete in her prime due to the country of her birth being a sporting pariah. “It was kind of a strange day for me because we went to the pool and I felt very emotional when I walked in. My heart was racing, but it was wonderful because they actually cleared the pool for me and I had it all to myself. I swam and felt so calm.”
Cowley’s is a complicated story but one worth listening to. She followed in the footsteps of Zola Budd, also banned from Edinburgh in 1986, as a South African of English heritage who attempted to use it to circumvent the sporting boycott, but there is one key difference. While Budd competed in the 3,000m for Britain at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, when she collided with Mary Decker, the home darling, and for South Africa at Barcelona in 1992, Cowley twice paid the price for her desire to compete on the world stage. She was not only excluded in Edinburgh but also from the South Africa team for the 1992 Olympics despite training hard to put herself in contention.
“I had quit swimming and was working full-time but when I heard South Africa had got back in I went to my boss and said, ‘listen, I have to give this a last shot, I really have to try and make this happen. If I can’t swim for England or Britain, I am going to try and swim for South Africa again’. I went back and went to trials, probably did the best times I have ever done.”
Despite them, Cowley feels the selectors were influenced not to pick her. She was to be punished again for what her critics claimed was adopting a flag of convenience. “Politically, we’ve had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, but it has never happened for our sports people. I don’t think they realise how tough it is to train every day relentlessly to be at the top of your game and have those opportunities stripped away from you.”
In 1986, her times in the English trials would have been good enough to take gold in Edinburgh. She refuses to torment herself too much with what might have been but went along to watch the 100m freestyle final. “I just watched the 100m and then left afterwards. It was tough to deal with and I think enough was enough and I just needed to get out of there and have a change of scene. I had been through a lot. I did cry. I put on a brave face for the media, but sometimes I just shut the door or you take it out in the pool. It is easier to cry in the water.”
Her parents, Ron and Sue, then flew over from South Africa to support her at the centre of a media and political storm. Ron, a Cape Town doctor, who died 11 years ago, knew how many hours the youngest of his three daughters had poured into her dream. “He was so involved in my swimming and so passionate about it. I trained on my own in the morning and my dad used to sit on the side and read the newspaper. It was freezing cold because it wasn’t heated. I would go in and turn blue and he’d say, ‘you can come home, you know’ and I’d say ‘no’. He was lovely to me.”
Sue has also passed away but kept meticulous scrapbooks of Cowley’s career and the traumatic summer of 1986. For years she couldn’t face the cuttings and the memories they invoked. “I put them in a cupboard and shut it.” Yet now she is planning a book and is glad they are there to help her with it. She has one of the scrapbooks with her as we speak in a cafe in Edinburgh and it reminds you that this was front-page news back then, plus fodder for cartoonists and satirists inside as they showed Thatcher at odds with the Commonwealth leaders with Budd and Cowley in limbo between them. She became an unwitting and unwilling symbol of white South Africa.
“It was very hard to comprehend because nobody ever asked my personal views and opinions. I grew up in a very liberal English-speaking home and this just happened to me and I felt like an innocent victim. I just stood for a symbol of the white South African government at the time and it was also very confusing because I was being asked to do things like renounce my South African citizenship, but I was scared to do that because my family was back home and I didn’t want to be stopped from going back to see them. It was extremely controversial and very difficult, initially, not having someone with me to help me through the process at such a young age. As a young girl, I was simply trying to get the exposure, get the competition and maybe have the opportunity to win gold.”
Instead, her childhood dreams died on that Sunday morning in July 1986 when she was marched out of the Games village. “I don’t think anybody who has the opportunities that they have now would understand what we went through. I wasn’t exposed on an international level to anybody, to any of my heroes that I had read about in Swimming World magazine. You did feel very isolated.”
She wasn’t aware of apartheid growing up, living in a bubble well away from its many atrocities. “Where we went to school it was all white kids and now it is very different. My kids don’t know the difference between black, brown or white, they really don’t, they are so integrated now, which is wonderful, and I feel quite sad that when I grew up in South Africa we never had that.”
Her own children are strong swimmers. “My son, who is 16, seems to prefer water polo and is doing really well. He seems more interested in swimming lately, but I am figuring that might be because there are some pretty girls at the pool. One of my twin daughters is doing really well and winning nationals in her age group. My other daughter is more into ball sports. They have to figure it out for themselves.”
She missed them during her trip to Edinburgh but it also gave her time to explore the city. “I never got to see how beautiful Edinburgh was — the history, the buildings — so this time round I have really taken full advantage. I have walked and walked and walked. There’s a lot of hills and steps.”
Yet it was the short flight down into the Commonwealth Pool at Meadowbank that was the most significant for her and, after a 28-year wait, that moment of calm isolation in its healing waters that followed.
Today Annette runs a business in Cape Town.
Annette in the 1984 Springbok swimming team