Geoff Grylls

The “River Rat” Who Mined Diamonds From The Sea


article by Cecil Colwin

Geoff Grylls’s successes were not only on the surface of the water as a champion swimmer, but also underneath. He used natural skill and acumen to build a multi-million dollar enterprise extracting diamonds from under the sea in the world’s second biggest sea mining operation after the renowned de Beers Diamond Company.

In swimming circles world-ranked swimmer Geoff Grylls has long been known as a ‘River Rat’, a South African colloquialism for a person who thrives on swimming in rivers. He learned to swim in South Africa’s Swartkops River, a large river that flows into the Indian Ocean, near the city of Port Elizabeth. And this is where he later did most of his training. Like many a good swimmer before him Geoff can’t remember when he couldn’t swim. From his early years swimming has been an important part of his life. He liked being near water and was sailing his own yacht in open water at the age of eight. In the pool, while still in his teens, he began to win national and international freestyle swimming championships at every distance from the 100 to the mile. However Geoff’s successes weren’t only on the surface of the water but also beneath it. From under the sea he built a multi-million dollar enterprise extracting diamonds in the world’s second biggest sea mining operation after the renowned de Beers Diamond Company.

Growing Up on the River

Talking about growing up on the Swartkops River, Geoff said that it was “a paradise, an adventurous place in which to grow up, just like Tom Sawyer’s life in a Mark Twain story. We all learned to swim, sail, row and do all sorts of water sports like canoeing, fishing and water skiing. ““We led a very unrestrained life, and once we had learned to swim we were left pretty much alone all day. So we explored the river, seeing seagull nests, monitor lizards, snakes etc. Apart from swimming we did a lot of sailing on the river and this also became an important part of my life.”

Training in the River For Big Meets.

Throughout his competitive swimming career, even when he was a South African and British Champion, Geoff trained in the river for most of his big races. “I used to discipline myself to go down to the river and train, and hang a watch off one of the jetties in the river and swim between the jetties or across the river and back and record my times. That’s how I used to do my splits.” Asked how he was able to measure his speed over an unmarked distance, Grylls said “I knew that the river was 100 metres across...approximately, depending upon the tide, and the distance between the jetties was approximately 50 metres. And, depending on which way the tide was flowing, my times would be different, and so I adjusted my times for the rate at which the tide was flowing and swam against myself!” Asked how he would know his reactions when he finally got into the strange surroundings of a marked-off swimming pool. Grylls replied: “Well, I didn’t know. In fact, the week before the 1964 National Championships, where I won all four South African freestyle titles, my coach Peter Elliott, commenting on his team in the local newspaper, said ‘I have absolutely no idea how fit Geoff is because he swims in the river!’ . I used to train with Peter in his pool once a week and he would correct my stroke and give me time trials, but the rest of my training was done in the river. When I got into the pool, Peter merely checked my pacing and how I was moving in the water.”

Ilsa Konrad’s Reaction

Asked whether his coach commented on what times Geoff was clocking and what chances he stood in competition, Geoff replied: “Those sort of things didn’t really worry me. I had a sort of ‘inner-confidence’, I did the best I could. I honestly think that this attitude kept me relatively unshackled... it kept me relatively fresh. In fact, in 1966 when Ilsa Konrads, the great Australian swimmer turned journalist, was in South Africa because she found this most intriguing, she wrote a long article on how I trained in the river all alone and kept improving.”

Swimming Alone in Open Water

“Eventually, this type of training was to condition me later for taking up open water racing because in 1964, the English magazine, “Swimming Times” in Britain, when discussing my winning all four British freestyle titles, said that I was ‘a star whose technique they couldn’t fathom. He has the ability to lift his head out of the water to look around and see how he was doing in the race without unbalancing his stroke.” Grylls said that when he eventually took up surf swimming and later ventured into rough water swimming, “it was the sort of freedom that I enjoyed. And since then, other than when I played water polo for Eastern Province and then Western Province, since those days at the end of the 1960’s I’ve been a loner. I’ve trained alone in the sea. For example, beginning in 2006 when I went to the World Life Saving Championships, during the preceding six months in training I trained alone in 14 different venues in four continents, mostly in the sea.”

Oceanic Repeat Swimming

“I do train in the pool quite often now but most of my real hard training is only in the sea, and what I do is as follows: I know that I take90 strokes for 100 metres. I have an unusually rapid turnover and so I do repeats by taking100 strokes flat out, then taking a rest time off my wrist watch, and then I keep doing 100stroke repeats as hard and fast as I can, taking a rest in between... it’s a sort of oceanic repeat swimming! And so all my open water interval training is done in this fashion, varying the number of strokes;100 strokes or 200 strokes, or if I’m speeding it up, on 50 strokes. For the last nine years, my companion Shirley and I have spent three months of every year out in the Mediterranean or in Croatia, where our yacht is moored, and the only place I’ve had to swim in, is the sea!”

Training and Meeting Challenges

Now in his sixties, Geoff is winning international open water long distance events and life-saving competitions in his age group. He takes three or four months out in every year to sail his yacht in rivers and oceans around the world, stopping to train in an inviting bay or wherever he can find a likely rough water challenge in which to swim.


About Geoff Grylls: Born 18 Sept 1943, Port Elizabeth SA Height : 6 feet ,three inches. Present weight: 188 pounds, but down to 182when really training. (Grylls weighed about 165in pounds in his heyday) Matriculated at Grey High School, Port Elizabeth, 1961. Compulsory military training at the SA Air Force Gymnasium 1962. This Institution is very sport inclined and Grylls was given great encouragement with his swimming. Bachelor of Commerce Degree, 1963/1966,The University of Port Elizabeth. Named South African “Male Swimmer of the Year”, in 1962, 1963, 1964.

1962  - Won the South African National 1650 yds title and swam for South Africa versus the visiting Japanese Team.

1963  - Won the South African 220, 440 and 1650 yds freestyle titles. Member of the Eastern Province Team that won the National Championship 4 x110 medley relay and both the 4 x 110 yds and4 x 220 yds freestyle relay titles. 1964 Won every South African Freestyle title: 110,220, 440 and 1650 yds. Also won the 4.5mile Fish Hoek to Muizenberg swim in the Indian Ocean swim (Each swimmer had an accompanying personal board paddler because of sharks sighted in the Bay.)

1964 - Member of the South African touring Team to England where he won the 220, 440, and1650 yds British National titles, but heard that South Africa had been expelled from the Tokyo Olympics. No one realized that, as a Dual Citizen of South Africa and Great Britain, Grylls qualified for a British passport and as such, if selected, could have been permitted to compete in the Tokyo Olympics.

1965 - Did not swim in SA Championships because of mononucleosis (glandular fever) and also missed the Fish Hoek Open Water swim. 1965 Member of the South African touring Team to England where he won the 220, 440, 880 yds Freestyle British National titles and came second in the 1650. 1966 Scaled down his swimming activities as he was working full day, studying 5 university subjects and trying to train in between. As a result, he did not swim the 1650 in the South African National Championships, but came 3rd in the 110yds freestyle and won the 220 and 440 titles at the South African Championships.

1966  - As a member of the South African Team toured USA and competed in the American National Championships in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he tied with 3rd fastest time in the 200 metres freestyle but was given 4th place time. Don Schollander and John Nelson were first and second respectively in world record time. (Grylls beat the up and coming 16-year old Mark Spitz in this race in which Spitz was swimming in his first National Championships.)

After these Championships Doc Counsilman offered Grylls the chance to do an MBA and train at Indiana University, but as South Africa was not permitted to compete in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Grylls turned his back on competitive swimming and joined the Surf Lifesaving Association which, “because of its humanitarian aspects”, continued to be internationally recognized.


 with fellow Peter Elliot club mate - Springbok Jon Reen



January 1964

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