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Karen Muir - Legend

She became an instant legend on 10 August 1965, when aged 12 years, 10 months, and 25 days, Karen Muir became the youngest person to break a sporting world record in any discipline when she swam the 110 yards backstroke in 1:08.7 at the ASA National Junior Championships in Blackpool, England.

Until she retired in 1970 - Karen Muir was the unofficial world champion of women's backstroke - without ever winning an international gold medal. Because of the sports boycott of her country, she was banned from competing in the Olympic Games.

Her 1969 record for the 100m backstroke would only be broken in 1973 when East German Ulrika Richter set a better time, although Richter is an acknowldged drugs cheat. In 1969 she also twice set a new world record for the 440 yard IM.

In 1980 she was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and she died in Mosselbaai on the 1st April 2013.

Karen at age 12 - still only in std. 5 -  Karen vertel hier haar eie storie.

Karen was born in Kimberley on 16 September 1952. Her family were parents Dr. Ronnie and Yvonne Muir, and sisters Linda and Lianna, who both also swam.

How Karen came to a swimmer is well described by Fred Labuschagne in his article The Human Torpedo. Her mother's efforts to help Karen cope with an innate shyness - by putting her into swimming lessons - had unexpected results!

After starting lesssons with local swimming teacher Fiks Nel, she soon progressed to swimming in the squad of imported English coach Frank Gray, who describes her number one key to success being an "insatiable desire to respond vigorously to competitive challenges of competition". Having learned to swim only the previous summer, by 1962 she was already responding to the naturally competitive environment. Frank Gray knew how to motivate his swimmers - he held out the ultimate prize to Karen when he told her : You can be a Springbok.

At the end of January 1964 the Griqualand West team to compete in the annual triangular gala against Border and the OFS, in East London, without their new star youngster Karen Muir. Frank Gray had persuaded the local officials to leave her behind, in order to focus on the local Griqualand West provincial championships, taking place the following week. The result was her selection to represent Griquas at nationals, in Port Elizabeth, at the end of February. In late February Karen swam in the local high school championships - despite only being in standard 4 (one can imagine Frank Gray's influence here - getting his swimmer some competitive swims before nationals).

1st Nationals - 1964 Port Elizabeth

By the time Griqualand West swimmers traveled to the 1964 nationals in Port Elizabeth, 11 year old Karen held a number of national age group records, and she qualified for nationals. Unlike many sports, swimmer were selected to compete at nationals only if they achieved standard qualifying times, which the majority of South African swimmers never do, and making it to nationals - winning provincial colours - was considered to be some achievement. The overnight train trip to Port Elizabeth, in the company of all the officials and senior Griqua swimmers and the Rhodesian team, who had taken a break from their three day trip in Kimberley, would have been a particularly exciting for such a youngster.

At the tender age of 11, she was the youngest member of the team - and the only Afrikaner. These annual tours to nationals were a feature of the South African swimming scene in those days, lasting up to two weeks for some teams coming all the way from Ndola or Vryheid. Teams of youngsters, accompanied by managers and chaperones, stayed in hotels where they participated in "initiation' ceremonies, and generally had a good time. No doubt Karen's parents experienced some moments of anxiety about their daughter's safety!

At her first nationals Karen made the finals of both backstroke events - a notable achievement - although she finished 6th (last) in each, with the 15 year old Transvaal swimmer Ann Fairlie the winner of both titles. Fairlie had set new South African records for both distances in 1963 - when she was 13, and was the youngest swimmer ever to have been awarded Springbok colours. Ann Fairlie would have made quite an impression on Karen Muir. Elsewhere - on 18th August 1964 - the IOC expelled South Africa from the Olympic Games, officially ending any chance of Karen's future participation in the Olympic Games.

2nd Nationals - Salisbury, Rhodesia

In 1965 the South African nationals were held in inland, at the Les Browne Pool in Salisbury, Rhodesia, at 5000 ft above sea level. By now Karen was a seasoned provincial swimmer, ready to make her mark on the national swimming scene. Ann Fairlie again won both backstroke events, but this time Karen was right behind her in second place. Fairlie had swum a 1:10,6 earlier in the season, which was only 0,8 seconds outside the world record for the distance, set by Britain's Jill Norfolk in the fast salt water pool in Blackpool. The Rhodesian press were touting Fairlie to break Norfolk's record 'at any time', but they were already beginning to take notice of young Karen. In the 110 yards backstroke final Fairlie finished first in 1:11, 4 with Karen second in 1:13,7. The 220 yds backstroke was a repeat of the 100, as Fairlie won again, in a new South African record of 2:37,1 with Karen time 2:41,2.

Despite Ann Fairlie being the star of that year's nationals, for her achievements Karen was awarded her Springbok colours - the pinnacle of achievement for any South African sportsman at the time, having being excluded from the Olympic Games - and she was still in primary school! As often happened with precociously talented youngsters, she was receive her school colours for swimming long after getting a Springbok blazer. She has left her prized Springbok blazer to her alma mater Diamantveld HS.

In the previous year - August 1964 - the South African swimming union had sent a Springbok men's team to compete in the British nationals, where they won 9 of 11 titles. In 1965 SAASU again sent a team to England - this time they took the girls also, including young Karen. With Ann Fairlie already in the team, she was taken along as an 'additional' swimmer.

British ASA nationals - Blackpool - August 1965

In July 1965 the swimming Springboks - including young Karen - set out on the trip to Europe, which started in Spain and finished with their participation in the British ASA nationals at Blackpool in August. In Spain Ann Fairlie twice clocked 1:08,2 for the 100yds backstroke, and the press described her as a real threat to British champion Linda Ludgrove, who had set a new world record in the 100m backstroke in early August. Little mention was made of Karen Muir. Before arriving in Blackpool, the Springboks swam in a series of galas against English and Scottish swimmers where politics thrust itself upon the swimmers, as the last gala was cancelled because anti-South African protesters had poured green dye into the pool!

However - trying to undermine the South Africans by introducing politics into the mix probably did the English swimmers no favours. In the previous year the South African men had won 9 of the 11 races at the ASA nationals in Crystal Palace, and the British swimmers were perhaps trying anything to get an advantage over them. There had not been any mention of politics the previous year, so the sudden objection sudden objection their presence was perhaps opportunistic. Undaunted, the Springboks concentrated on the job at hand - winning their races.

The Derby pool in Blackpool, like the beach Baths in Durban, was a fast, salt water filled pool, at sea level, and fast times were expected. Unwisely adding insult to injury, the British ASA had ruled Karen too young to swim in the senior women's events. She was relegated to swim in the Junior Women 110 yards backstroke, as well as the 110 and 220 yards freestyle events. Undaunted, she focused on the job at hand - winning her 3 races, while the older swimmers focused on winning ASA senior titles - and a world record from Ann Fairlie would not have been entirely unexpected. What did occur was totally unexpected.

World record number 1. Click here to see an interview of Karen after her record swim

In Blackpool, on the 10th August 1965 - Karen Muir swam in the heats of the Junior girls 110 yards backstroke. While the salt water may have been a novelty to her, the noise of a large crowded Derby Baths indoor pool would definitely have been a new experience. From the start of the race, when she literally fell into the water, she just focused on swimming as fast as could - to make the final. Imagine her surprise at the end of that heat. Before the race her best time over the distance had been 1:12,2. She turned in a 32,4 and finished the race 10 seconds before the next swimmer.

To her own surprise, and the amazement of the crowd, Karen set a new world record of 1:08,7! The world record of 1:09,5 was held by England's Linda Ludgrove - who was to compete against Ann Fairlie in the Women's event.

The next day she swam a 1:08,9 in the final - once again under the old world mark of 1:09,5.  She also won the Junior 110 and 220 yards freestyle events, while Ann Fairlie won the Women's 110 backstroke in the same time as Karen - 1:08,9.

The 12 years old returned home to a tumultuous reception, where people everywhere became interested in swimming - and especially Karen. Her parent's plan for swimming to help her overcomes her shyness had worked better than expected!


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