Karen Muir was a swimmer from the provincial town of Kimberley in the northern Cape Province of South Africa. On 10 August 1965, aged 12 years, 10 months, and 25 days, she became the youngest person to break a sporting world record in any discipline when she swam the 110 yards backstroke in 1:08.7s at the ASA National Junior Championships in Blackpool, England - today she remains the youngest athlete to have set a senior world record.
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IN HAAR EIE WOORDE:
As ek nou terugkyk en myself die vraag stel of dit alles die moeite werd was, dan moet ek sonder aarseling JA sê. Maar ek sal nooit ‘n twaalfjarige dogter van my toelaat om op buitelandse toere te gaan nie – en tensy die akademiese stelsel in ons skole radikaal verander, sal geen kind van my so baie tyd aan sport bestee soos ek gedoen het nie.
Ek het op die ouderdom van nege geleer swem. Die volgende jaar het ek Griekwaland-Wes op die S.A Skole-kampioenskappe in Port Elizabeth verteenwoordig. Ek het aan die 110 tree-vryslag deelgeneemen HEEL LAASTE geëindig!
Miskien moes ek toe opgehou en soos ‘n normale dogtertjie groot geword het. Maar nee, afrigter Frank Gray het dit nie toegelaat nie. Op 11-jarige leeftyd het ek aan my eerste Curriebeker toernooi, weer in Port Elizabeth, deelgeneem.
Die daaropvolgende jaar, twaalf jaar oud, is ek na afloop van die S.A Kampioenskappe in Salisbury vir die Springbokspan wat na Europa gegaan het, gekies.
Teen hierdie tyd was Suid-Afrika se wêreldrekord-baanbreker ANN FAIRLIE, reeds gevestig as ‘n groot naam in ons swem. Ann, ‘n paar jaar ouer as ek, het my in Salisbury geklop. Die volgende drie jaar sou hierdie puik Cecil Colwin-produk my verby haar eie wêreldtye in die rugslag dryf.
Die oomblik toe die vliegtuig styg, het my lewe in twee geskeur. Daar was Karen die popspeel-kind wat vir die volgende ses jaar graag elke standerd op die Hoërskool Diamantveld in die eerste klas wou slag; en daar was Karen Muir, aan die begin van ‘n uitputtende loopbaan as internasioenale swemster.
Die dag van die Britse kampioenskappe in Blackpool het aangebreek en vir ‘n vaal ou Kalahari-dogtertjie wat op beeldradio gesê het Rome herhinner haar aan Kimberley, was dit ‘n geweldige emosionele belewenis.
Aan die Olimpiese Spele kon ek toe nooit deelneem nie, maar ek twyfel of enigiets daarna ‘n groter indruk op my sou gemaak het as the Britse Kampioenskappe, my eerste groot internasioenale byeenkoms.
Ek hetmy oë styf toegeknyp toe ek werktuiglik in my eerste uitdun in die water gedons het. Van die oomblik toe die skoot geknal het, totdat ek die eindkant geraak het, was ek net van een gedagte bewus: swem, Karen, swem, swem harder swem, jy moet die finaal haal.
Alleen toe mnr. Alec Bulley my bestorm het en omhels – en daardie foto geneem is waar ek verdwaas met my fingers in my mond staan en grens – het ek geweet dat iets gebeur het. Ek moet eerlik sê dat mnr. Bulley se herhaalde versekering dat ek die wêreldrekord verbeter het, geen ingang by die twaalfjarige dogtertjie gevind het nie.
Skaam Karen, het hulle gesê – en dit het my net nog skamer in my dop laat kruip. Ek meen, het hulle dan verwag ‘n twaalfjarige plattelandse dogter moet wêreldwys wees?
Nou wil ek nie graag praat van opofferinge nie. As ‘n mens die hoogste sport op enige gebied wil bereik, geskied dit nie sonder opoffering nie. Daaglikse ure van inspanning en oefening in die swembad wanneer ander kinders sorgvry speel? ‘n Kind in ‘n volwassene wêreld? Kom ons laat dit liewer daar.
Die grootste opoffering was dié van my ouers. Dit is hulle wat dit vir my moontlik gemaak het om ses jaar lank vir Suid-Afrika te swem en deurgans wêreld-standaard te handhaaf.
Dit moet onthou word dat ek van elfjarige ouderdom, tot in my matriekjaar selde tuis was in die swemseisoen. Feitlik elke naweek het ek op ‘n ander dorp of stad geswem en vertonings gelewer – tot op die kleinste ou dorpies; aan kampioenskappe, provinsiaal en nasionaal, deelgeneem, teen besoekende spanne.
End an oorsee elke April, dan terug in Mei, na warm baddens verhuis om vir die winterseisoen voor te berei, aangesien ons nie die fasiliteite in Kimberley gehad het nie. Juliemaand weer oorsee, middle Augustus terug.
En dan moes ‘n jaar se skoolwerk skielik ingehaal word, elke en iedere van daardie ses swemjare. Net twee maande om die leerplan te voltooi - om in November dan weer in te val met ons eie swemseisoen.
Teen groot koste moes my ouers onderwysers van ander skole se hulp inroep om my met ekstra lesse eksamen-gereed te kry.
Dit is hierdie omstandighede wat daarvoor verantwoordelik is dat so baie van ons jong swemmers akademies op skool uitsak. Onhou, jy raak so baie uithuisig juis in die jare wat ‘n kind – en veral ‘n meisie, op vatbaarste is vir buiteinvloede.
Dat my ouers daarin geslaag het om my te laat koers hou – om my die eerste Springbok-swemmer te maak – so verneem ek – wat matriek in eerste klas kon slag, is hul eie wonderlike prestatsie waarvoor ek hulle nooit genoeg sal kan dank nie.
En nou gaan ek as geneesheer aan die UOVS bekwaam. Swem moes in die slag bly. En ek is ewe vasberade om Karen Muir M.D. te word as toe na wêreldrekords gemik het!
Karen met Alex Bulley na die wêreldrekord.
Her first coach Frank Gray describes her number one key to success being an "insatiable desire to respond vigorously to competitive challenges of competition". Having learned to swim the previous summer of 1961, she was already responding to the naturally competitive environment of age group swimming. Coach Gray knew how to motivate his swimmers - he held out the ultimate prize to Karen - he told her: "you can be a Springbok- if you work hard". Its unlikely that she really understood what that meant - at her stage of development as a swimmer.
At the end of January 1964 the Griqualand West senior provincial 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 was already a force in Griqua swimming. Unlike many sports, swimmers were selected to compete at nationals only if they achieved national qualifying times. The vast majority of South African swimmers never did achieve these qualifying times, and making it to nationals 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, traveling if you 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 - which was a notable achievement for a youngster - 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 for swimming. Ann Fairlie, who was also to set backstroke world records - would have made quite an impression on young 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 220yds 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, and she was still in primary school! As often happened with precociously talented youngsters, receiving her high school colours for swimming award 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.
Karen’s first world Record
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.
Click on the image below to see a video made after her momentous swim in Blackpool.
World record number 1 - Blackpool, England, 10 August 1965
At the ASA Championships in Blackpool Karen Muir swam in the heats of the Junior Girls 110 yards backstroke. The salt water may have been a novelty to her, while the noise of a large and crowded Derby Baths indoor pool would definitely also 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 and the amazement of the crowd as Karen set a new world record of 1:08,7! The previous 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.
The 12 years old returned home to a tumultuous reception. Her parent's plan for swimming to help her overcomes her shyness had unexpected consequences!
1966 - Diamantveld Hoërskool - Kimberley
It was to be a momentous year for South African swimming and Karen Muir, as she started standard 6 at Diamantveld Hoërskool. In a time when air travel had an image of glamour and excitement in the 60s, reserved for the rich and famous, Karen began a period of life that was extraordinarily for a teenage plattelandse-meisie. For the next five years she had continuous local and national engagements and galas, she would travel overseas to Europe and north America between April and August each year, setting world records, all the while ensuring she finished matric with a first class pass - to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor. Her parents - veterinarian father Dr. Ronnie Muir and her mother Yvonne, ensured she stayed focused on academic success as much as swimming. In the end, what really mattered most to her was to qualify as a doctor.
In January 1966 the various swimming provinces held their championships - where both Ann Fairlie and Karen Muir showed off their talents in the individual medley. The South African Amateur Swimming Union - barred from competing in official international events the world body FINA – had succeeded in attracting the world’s two best female backstrokers - besides the South Africans - to swim in the South African national championships. In early February 1966 Christine 'Kiki' Caron of France - silver medalist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and 1966 European 100m backstroke Champion, arrived in South Africa – while the 1964 Olympic gold medalist and world record holder over 100m Cathy Ferguson, would also arrive later, in time for nationals, to be held at the Beach Baths in Durban during March 1966.
On the 16th February Fairlie and Caron clashed in the Hillcrest Pool in Pretoria, where Ann Fairlie did a time of 1:09,1, beating the French swimmer by 5 yards. Coach Frank Gray had refused permission for Karen Muir to travel to Pretoria for the race. In fairness to Caron - she had arrived from France only a few days before, out of the northern hemisphere winter season, and was swimming on the highveld, at 5000 feet above sea level. A rematch between Fairlie and Caron had been planned for two days later, at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, with Karen Muir joining in. The press reports describe a fantastic race, watched by huge crowd of 5000 spectators. Little Karen was the world record holder, but the Ann Fairlie was a Johannesburg local, obviously the crowd favourite, whose fastest time was barely 0,2 seconds slower than Karen's record. Caron and Fairlie were grown women, compared to the slim teenager - now 13 - who would have been driven up from Kimberley to compete in the special gala. Despite being the world record holder over 100 yards, Karen had never actually beaten Ann Fairlie in a backstroke race, having finished behind her at nationals and of course she swam in the junior race in Blackpool, where Fairlie won both of the senior backstroke events.
French champion Kiki Caron with Ann Fairlie
At Ellis Park Ann Fairlie won the race in 1:08,9 - with Karen second by one tenth, and Kiki Caron a distant third in 1:13,0. Ann's time was just 0,2 seconds slower than Karen's world record - its easy to see why there was so much excitement! Karen's race was marred by a poor start and a tangle with the lane rope. Losing the race to Ann Fairlie must have been quite a blow to Karen Muir - and her very competitive coach Frank Gray.
The swimming moved to the new Queens Park pool in Karen's hometown of Kimberley for a rematch. The local swimming enthusiasts were used to seeing international swimming as SAASU had previously hosted international events there, when South Africa swam against visiting teams from Germany and Holland. The local swimming organizers were hard-pressed to accommodate all of the spectators, as tickets were sold for R1, and bookings for the gala could be made at a local jewelry store! Swimming was big entertainment in Kimberley, with their very own world record holder - but crucially, not world champion.
Unfortunately the local swimming officials had their ownplans - they had scheduled a 220 yards backstroke for the gala, and had published that fact in the gala programme weeks earlier. Once the swimmers arrived in Kimberley, Cecil Colwin, who was Ann's coach, refused to let her swim the 220 yards race, arguing that they had come prepared for the 100 yards distance. Eventually the local officials gave in, and the 110 yards distance was swum.
Ann Fairlie’s first world record - Kimberley, 21 February 1966
In Karen’s home pool in Kimberley - Ann Fairlie set her first world mark when she broke Karen world record! Karenhad a poor start and was catching Fairlie at the end of the race, resulting in a very close finish. In the pre-electronic era of the 1960's, spectators had to wait for ten minutes while the officials worked out exactly what had happened. The final results was - Fairlie 1:08,6 (WR), Muir 1:08,8, with the French swimmer Kiki Caron third in 1:12,1.
Karen and her parents were absent from the official mayoral reception held the next day, where new world record holder Ann Fairlie and the charming Kiki Caron were feted. No doubt Karen was at home - planning here revenge.
The next event was scheduled to take place at the Beach Baths saltwater pool in Durban. An improved performance was expected from Kiki Caron, while Cathy Ferguson had arrived from California during the week. The South African national championships were due to start the following week, and a special gala had been organized for the backstrokers, to be held on the Saturday before. Ferguson had other ideas - after traveling for three days, she declined to race the South Africans, agreeing only to do an exhibition swim.
World record number 2 - Durban, 26 February 1966
At a special gala in Durban in the 100 yard-long salt water filled Beach Baths, reduced to a 55-yard course for the event, 13 year old Karen Muir broke a world record for the second time. She swam the 110 yards backstroke in 1:08,3 - taking 0,3 seconds off the world record set by Ann Fairlie just six days before. She took advantage of an improved starting technique, and turned one yard ahead of the field, and maintained that lead to the finish. Fairlie was second in 1:09,0 and Caron in an improved 1:10,2. Her coach Frank Gray had identified the poor starts as a problem, and they worked to fix that during the intervening 6 days, and despite her misgivings about beating Ann Fairlie - which would have been a first for her - she overcame the disappointment of Kimberley and triumphed in Durban.
The 1965 South African swimming championships were due to start two days later, with the women's 110 yards backstroke final scheduled for Tuesday evening. In all the excitement of the world records, and races won in faraway places, Karen would still have been very aware that this was the big stage of South African swimming - where she had yet to win a gold medal! Karen had spent countless hours in the pool, training with the other swimmers, dreaming of swimming glory. For most swimmers world records would probably not have been their dream; qualifying for nationals, making a final, winning a medal - and ultimately a national title, was the pinnacle of sporting achievement for a south African swimmers who were banned from competing in the Olympic Games. For very select few there was the added and elusive reward of Springbok colours - a rare achievement in those days - only for competining an international event. As one Olympian said "World records are there to be broken but medals are there forever and you can hold onto them." For Karen Muir, an Olympic gold medal was never something she could achieve - she already held the world record anyway. For her, a first title at the South African championships, in front of her peers, would have been very special.
Relive the incredible moment America's Cathy Ferguson won the 100m backstroke, setting a world record time at the age of just 16 at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. This is what Karen was up against in Durban, and to make it extra special - the current Olympic gold and silver medalists were there to be beaten. Cathy Ferguson and Kiki Caron represented the world Karen was excluded from, but here they were, in her back yard, to be measured, and Karen did not disappoint. The local press billed it as the Olympic final that never was - Ferguson, Caron, Fairlie and Muir - the four best female backstrokers in the world, having it out. Not only were the stands packed with Durbanites coming to see and extraordinary sporting event, the cream of South African provincial swimming was also there for the premier event on the annual SA swimming calendar. For any sportsman, the abiding memories of their careers are the relationships with teammates and archrivals. They had seen Karen swim at two previous nationals, where Ann won both times, and now they were in Durban for their national championships. Added to the usual tensions and excitement was the possibility of world records, and Olympians Ferguson and Caron, who was no strangers to the big stage. Karen had never swum against the Olympic champion Cathy Ferguson, and she was the one Karen was most afraid of.
Olympic champion Cathy Ferguson and Kiki Caron - 1965
Karen aged 14
World record number 3 - Durban, 1 March 1966
At the South African championships, held in Durban that year, 13 year old Karen Muir broke the 110 yard backstroke world record for the second time in a week - by a further 0,3 seconds - finishing in 1:08,0. Ann Fairlie was second in 1:08,7, Kiki Caron took the bronze in 1:09,5 and Cathy Ferguson ended fourth in 1:11,1. For the South Africans - order had been restored! In the 220 yards backstroke South African championship Karen also took gold, beating Kiki Caron into second place, with Ann Fairlie in third and Cathy Ferguson again in 4th place. Although missing the world record by a mere 0,4 seconds (another world record had probably been expected!), her time was 1,3 seconds better than Ann Fairlie's South African record.
Back at school in Kimberley, Karen swam in her school gala - winning all of the backstroke, freestyle and butterfly events, in the girls under 14 age group. Alas, not even a world champion could help her house team - which finished last! She had a busy month outside the pool - presenting prizes at other school galas in Kimberley, and unveiling a bronze plaque to commemorate her first world record. The mayor had promised her the plaque when she returned from Blackpool in August of the previous year - but now he said that had been some “practical difficulties” in erecting the plaque, and besides - We can’t put up a plaque every time you break a world record!
Meanwhile Karen and her coach Frank Gray were plotting her next move. He set up a trip to Italy for the end of March 1966, where Karen would compete in an international event in Milan. The trip was due to an invitation from the Italian Swimming Federation, via the South African Swimming Union, who did not approve of Frank accompanying his swimmer as a coach - they always sent their own man Alex Bulley as coach. Frank made it clear that he was going anyway - with or without their approval. Funded by generous contributions from local sponsors, Frank Gray and Karen, accompanied by her mother Yvonne, set off for Milan. Coming from an Afrikaans town like Kimberley - it was to be an experience for her!
At the 33,3 metres Piscina Cozzi of Milan she was compete against swimmers like Romanian swimmer Cristina Balaban who won a bronze medal in the 100 m backstroke at the 1966 European Aquatics Championships and Russian Natalya Mikhaylova, who would finish second behind Karen in the 100m backstroke event. Frank Gray wrote from Milan - explaining how his champion was coping with the attention. In the end it was all probably a bit much, as Karen ended up in bed with a severe cold! But like any teenager, she was soon back on her feet to be a tourist in Naples and Rome, giving exhibitions to schoolchildren. Before leaving for home she made an attempt on the 200m-backstroke world record of 2:27,7, held by Cathy Ferguson. Having just seen off the American challenge in Durban, she must have fancied her chances of setting a new record. Swimming in the mosaic magnificence of the Foro Italico she had a bad start, and failed to break the world record, despite a split of 34,4 over the last 50. However - she was to break that record twice in the next few months, and again in 1968.
Returning to Kimberley again was not to be without some difficulties. In what must have involved some high-level diplomatic scrambling, the Muirs and Gray were allowed to travel home - without any passports. Her coach Frank Gray wrote a report of the their trip for the people back in Kimberley, who were following Karen's travels in the Diamond Field Advertiser.
In July 1966 Karen undertook another extended overseas trip - to France, the USA and Canada. The official SAASU 1966 Springbok tour was not to return to Blackpool for the British nationals that year. The British ASA, probably tired of the South Africans winning all the titles at their nationals, had changed their rules to allow only British-born swimmers to swim in the ASA nationals. Instead SAASU had arranged a tour of France and the USA for July - and also to Canada to compete at the British Columbia centenary celebration gala. In France they were to swim unofficially in an international gala involving Spain and Italy, while in the USA they would take part in the Los Angeles Invitational and the US Swimming nationals in Nebraska. The Canadian invitation would extend that trip right up until the end of August. Luckily for Karen's academic aspirations, the trip coincided (mostly) with the SA winter school holidays - certainly a factor in deciding whether to allow her so much time away from school.
At the time Australian great Ilsa Konrads had written a series of swimming articles for a local newspaper, in which she criticized the arrangements made by SAASU for the trip. In particular - their continued insistence on Alex Bulley being the only coach on tour, and their refusal of permission to accompany her coach Frank Gray to London, where she would have been able to prepare for the tour in a heated pool.
Swimming training in cold water, which is all Kimberley could provide, was not a viable option. As a result Karen was forced to travel to Johannesburg, to train in the unfamiliar surroundings of the Summit Club in Hillbrow.
On tour, Karen accompanied by the older Ann Fairlie - once again received extensive press attention, while the swimming officials scheduled sightseeing trips, which exhausted the swimmers. Their first gala was to be in Beziers, in an international against Spain, Italy and France. Although not part of the official international competition, the South African swimmers certainly made an impact.
Ann Fairlie's second world record - Beziers - 22 July 1966
Ann Fairlie set her second world record when she broke Kathy Ferguson's Olympic winning time in the 100m record, in a time of 1:07,4. Karen was second with Kiki Caron in third place. Caron was to win the European Championships in 1:08,1 later that summer, beating Linda Ludgrove and Christina Balaban.
Click here to see Ann Fairlie set her second world record.
World record number 4 - Beziers, France, 25 July 1966
Not to be outdone, Karen responded by breaking the world record for the 200m backstroke, held by Kathy Ferguson since 1964. The record stood at 2:27,4 and her new record was 2:27,1. This was the record she had failed to beat in Rome earlier that year. Three weeks later she broke it again!
After France they crossed the Atlantic, and the USA, to California, to swim in the famous Los Angeles Invitational gala. This was a very big event in US swimming, featuring all of the best American swimmers and drawing a huge crowd to the Los Angeles Swimming Stadium. Karen would remember the noise from the indoor pool at Blackpool, and the large crowd in Durban during the South African nationals, but this would have been another huge step up for her. She was the current world record holder - from faraway Kimberley, on the fringes of civilization - coming here to the center of world swimming. In 1976 more medals would be won at the Olympics by swimmers from southern California – than by the rest of the world combined. This was indeed the big time for Karen!
The only familiar face in the crowd was probably Cathy Ferguson - who was a Los Angeles local. Cathy was the first-ever international Swimmer of the Year in 1965 - an accolade won by Penny Heyns in 1996 and 1999. If the Springboks thought they were going to dominate this event - as they had done in Blackpool - they were to be disappointed, as most failed to even make a final. Typically undaunted, on 2nd August, Karen won the 200m backstroke in a meet record time of 2:28,1 - a second slower than her record set Beziers, beating Cathy Ferguson into second place. She also finished second to Claudia Kolb in the 200m medley - Kolb was to set a new world record later that month at the US nationals in Lincoln, while Karen and Elaine Tanner would set a combined new mark for 220 yards IM.
The South Africans moved to the Woods Park pool in Lincoln, Nebraska, to compete in the at the US nationals, where the likes of Catie Ball, Mark Spitz and Don Schollander were to compete. Little wonder the South Africans largely failed in impress most of the other events, despite setting a number of new South African records, but in women's backstroke they were supreme. While the Olympic Games are limited to two swimmers per country in each event, the full depth of American swimming is present at their nationals, and they would have taken notice of the South Africans. Another familiar face was Patty Caretto - recent visitor to Karen’s home at Kimberley, and previous youngest world record holder - setting a new WR for the 1500 at the event. Her video gives an idea of what life on the road was like for the young international swimming girls.
World record number 5 - Lincoln, Nebraska, 19 August 1966
Karen swam 2:26,4 to win the 200m backstroke at the US nationals at Lincoln by 2,5 seconds - taking another 0,7 out of the record she set in Beziers! Ann Fairlie went on to win the 100m, with Karen in second place, and with Cathy Ferguson in third place.
Further north, in the Canadian city of Vancouver, where the state of British Columbia was celebrating a centenary of Federation, the swimming was held at the University of Columbia outdoor pool, with swimmers from all over the British Commonwealth were competing. Here Karen was also meet Canadian star Elaine Tanner, with whom she would have many future encounters. Tanner had previous experience of Karen Muir in action - she had been in Blackpool the previous summer - when the 12 year-old set a new world record in her own event - which was something she probably never forgot. Tanner was to travel to South Africa in the next year - to tackle Karen Muir in her own back yard, because Karen was banned from international competition.
World record number 6 - Vancouver, Canada 26 August 1966
In Vancouver Karen, despite suffering from a back strain, won the 220 yards backstroke in a new world record of 2:28,2, finishing 5 seconds ahead of Canadian champion Elaine Tanner. Alex Bulley described her swim: She still hasn't learned to turn. She keeps trying to look ahead instead of using the overhead marker flags and then says 'Oh, I forgot' Ann Fairlie recaptured the 110 yards world record from Karen in a time of 1:07,9, and then Karen set her 7th world record.
World record number 7 - Vancouver, Canada, 28 August 1966
Karen's 7th world record is contentious, because records are only official once they are accredited by the governing body. The FINA Congress in 1968 decided that world records would only be recognised for metric distances, set in 50m pools. This ruling was to came into effect on 1st January 1969, long after the gala in Vancouver. Despite Karen finishing with the fastest time 2:32,0 and Tanner 2:32,1 the Canadian judges ruled Tanner to be the winner, and they were both supposed to hold the world record. Tanner set the previous mark of 2:33,3 in Vancouver on 2 July 1968, during a time trial at the 2 day British Columbia Open and Age group Championships. She broke the previous record by three tenths of a second, held by Donna de Verona of Santa Clara in California, and was also one tenth faster than the record set by Claudia Kolb a few weeks earlier. Kolb's record had not yet been recognised. Tanner is seldom credited with this world 220 yard invidual medley world record, and unfortunately no records of Word Records in yards times seem to to be publically available any more, so it remains difficult to confirm today. However contemporaneous newspaper reports do credit both Muir and Tanner with the achievement and if anyone knew about the 220 yards IM world record progression at that time - it would be the Canadian press.
In South Africa, the South African Amateur Swimming Union, led by Cape Town lawyer Harry Getz, refused to credit her with the record (they also did not recognise the world records set by Jonty Skinner and Peter Williams). In 1968 SAASU also refused to recognise Karen Muir's world record for the 200m backstroke set in Los Angeles, until Karen van Helden beat the then official SA record time of 2:24,1 in a time of 2:23,8 - equal to Muir's unrecognised time. Only then did SAASU agree to accept Karen's 2:23,8 world record, which Karen van Helden evetually did break on 8th March 1978, in 2:21,4, during an Test against Rhodesia in Klerksdorp..
Karen Muir with Ann Fairlie and Elaine Tanner.
After the gala in Vancouver, the Springboks made their way back to South Africa. It is hard to imagine the affects of an extended overseas tour on a 13-year old girl from a dorp like Kimberley – particularly one known to be timid and shy and without her mother. Karen was to receive a hero's welcome in Johannesburg, where the SAASU management turned out, with the local mayor - and again in her hometown of Kimberley.
At Diamantveld Hoërskool Karen was awarded her full colours for swimming - the school's highest accolade for a sportsman, usually reserved for older pupils - but Karen was obviously an exception! Life returned normal once again - Karen was selected to swim for her province against Northern Transvaal, while Frank Gray had to deal with the perpetual problem of South African swim coaches - pool time. Ann Fairlie returned from the extended overseas tour to focus on what was obviously a priority - catching up on her schoolwork for matric. While Karen and Ann may have been competing in faraway places like France and Canada, overseas travel was still unknown to most South Africans, and life at school and the swimming squad and provincial swimming was the main focus of everyday life.
1967 - big change and another momentous year for Karen Muir.
At the end of 1966 Karen's father accepted a post at Onderstepoort Veterinary School near Pretoria. It was headline news in Kimberley - their darling was leaving! In Pretoria Karen was to train under an Australian coach Bob Campbell. That meant leaving her first coach Frank Gray, as well as the life she had just begun at Diamantveld High school in Kimberley. She was to return to Kimberley and Frank Gray by the end of the year, after setting world record number 8 – in the 110 yards backstroke, while on the tour in England.
The big swimming news in the beginning of the year was the planned visit by a Canadian squad – to compete at nationals – which would include Canadian champion and world record holder Elaine Tanner. During the winter the Springboks toured Holland, Spain and England, and in December US star Don Schollander toured around the country. Ann Fairlie missed the European tour that year, having to make up for fa ailed matric the year before, which underlined the impact of these tours on Karen’s academic life.
World record number 8 - Hillcrest, Pretoria, 28 Janaury 1967
At the Northern Transvaal championships at the Hillcrest pool, Karen improved her own 220 yard backstroke world record set in Vancouver by ,05 seconds in 2:27,7 - finishing 15 seconds ahead of second placed Diane Ludorf. By then she had won almost all of the titles at the championships – only narrowly missing out on the 220 yards breaststroke!
In February 1967, while swimming in Northern Transvaal colours at nationals at Ellis Park in Johannesburg, Karen was challenged by Elaine Tanner, who won 5 SA titles, while Karen took three. Click here to see all the results from SA Swimming Championships in 1967. Her local rival Ann Fairlie had broken with her coach Cecil Colwin – and decamped to Kimberley to be coached by Frank Gray!
In July 1967 the Springboks once again embarked on an extended tour to Europe, competing at Tarasa in Spain, and at the 'Seven Hills' Tournament in Rome, ending the tour with a gala against the British team at Coventry. The tour was to be stormy one not only for Karen, who delayed her departure to spend more time at her schoolwork, joining her teammates in Holland on 30 June 1966, but also the rest of the team, who were confronted by anti-South African protestors at their galas. Karen was accompanied by a “personal chaperone” – who was in fact a journalist from Die Beeld, and who also shared Karen’s hotel room. This caused some problems, and in the end her father flew to London after reading reports about some unhappiness caused the SAASU officials treatment of their star swimmer. He threatened to take her home immediately, but in the end the matter was resolved, and Karen swam against British champion Linda Ludgrove at the event in Coventry.
World record number 9 - Coventry, England , 22 July 1967.
Seven times a worldrecord breaker, Briton Linda Ludgrove was five years older than Karen, and had been the 110 yard backstroke world record holder two years earlier when she beat Ann Fairlie at the 1965 ASA nationals – at the event where Karen broke that world record, swimming in the junior event. Ludgrove was to retire three weeks later, after winning the 110 yards backstroke at the ASA nationals in Blackpool. Despite the British press suggesting Ludgrove had not swum any competitons yet tat year, she had represented Great Britian at an event in Italy in March 1967, where she had finished fifth in the 100m backstroke. Now Ann Fairlie was not in the touring team, staying at home to study for matric, while Ludgrove was to contend with Karen in stead. Despite keeping up with Karen until the turn, she was no match for Karen, who finished 1,2 seconds ahead of her, in a new world record time of 1:07,5.
By the end of 1967 Karen was back in Kimberley, competing for Griquas and swimming with Frank Gray and at Diamantveld High, from where she matriculated in 1970. Ann Fairlie had also decided to quit swimming.
1968 started with more world records
Now aged 15 - and back in Kimberley, Karen was in standard 8, and the big news was the possibility of South Africa being allowed to compete in the Olympic Games, after being barred from the 1964 Tokoyo Olympics. The Canadian girls were again expected to swim at the SA nationals in Bloemfontein and US Olympic hero Don Schollander was touring South Africa. After his visit, Schollander later wrote about an encounter with Karen, during which apparently she gave him a note, asking for his help in getting South Africa accepted back into the Olympics. Her plea was that all her life – all she had lived and trained for – was the chance to prove herself in the Olympics. After the IOC officially voted to include South Africa in February, SAASU even went so far as to pick a team to compete – only to be told at the last moment that they would not be allowed to compete.
World record numbers 10 and 11 - Kimberley, 26 January 1968
At the Griqualand West swimming championships on the 26th January 1968, Karen sets a new record time for the 200m and 220 yards backstrokes at her home pool in Kimberley, in the time of 2:24,1.
World record number 12 and 13 - Kimberley, 27 January 1967
The next day she set new marks for the 100m and 110 yards events. Karen Muir did a time of 1:06,7, beating the world record set by Elaine Tanner, in July 1967, as well as her own 110 yards world record record of 1:07,5.
With the Tanner and the other Canadians touring South Africa, Karen was always going to have a fight on her hands. By all accounts, Elaine Tanner, barely 5 foot tall, nicknamed “Mighty Mouse”, was a tough competitor. Tanner held both the 100 and 200 world records in 1967, so beating Karen in the 200m backstroke at nationals in Ellis Park should not have come as too much of a surprise - yet the South African crowd was stunned!
In April 1968 Karen travels to France and Canada, accompanied by her mother.
World record number 13.
On the 6th April 1968 Karen again set a new world record of 1:06,4 for the 200 meters backstroke in Paris. This time was beaten at the Olympic Games by Kaye Hall who won the gold medal in1:06,2.
After getting very sick with double pneumonia in France, they went to Canada, but the trip was cut short because of civil unrest in the USA, resulting in a USA/ Canada border closure. The pneumonia probably also had an affect on her swimming!
World record number 14.
12 July 1968 Los Angeles 200m backstroke in 2:23,8. Later that year Lillian Watson of the USA won an Olympic gold medal in this event – in the slower time of 2:24,8 – which was also a new Olympic record. Elaine Tanner took the silver in 2:27,4.
In December 1968 she sets a new SA record in 200 IM, while competing against a touring German team from the Wurzberg Swimming club.
Matric year 1969. With her final year at school and matric exams looming, Karen was scaling back her swimming to ensure she did well enough in the exams to qualify for a place at medical school.
In January 1969 a strong contingent of American girls visited South Africa – Jan Henne, Sue Perdeson and Linda Gustavson, who had won gold silver and bronze at the 1968 Olympic Games, where Pam Kruse won silver in the 800m freestyle. At a gala in Cape Town on 8th January 1969 Karen beat Gustavson into second place in the 220 yards freestyle.
World record number 15.
On the 22nd January 1969, at the Griqualand West swimming championships in the Queens Park pool in Kimberley, Karen swims a 5:21,3 for a 440 yards IM, which beat the previous world mark of 5:25,1 set by American Mary Ellen Olcese, on 22nd August 1965. At the time Claudia Kolb held the world records for meters – both set in August 1968
Nationals was in Newlands again that year - a 55 yard pool. Karen entered 7 individual events – and 6, finishing third in the 440 freestyle.
World record number 16.
1st March 1969. On the last day of the South African championships at Newlands in Cape Town, Karen sets a new time in the 440 IM. Her time of 5:20,2 improved the mark set at Kimberley in January.
On the 14th March 1969 Karen swam at SA Schools gala, also held at Bloemfontein’s Stadium Pool that year, where she won both the events the competed in.
The 1969 South African Open Games started in Bloemfontein during the following week. Karen Muir was selected to open the event. Karen set a new SA record for the 200 IM, but made no effort to break the backstroke world mark. Besides the affects of swimming at altitude, the Stadium pool in Bloemfontein was heated, but rather too shallow in one end, and not compliant with the FINA standard of 1,8m for a competition pool.
From the 1st May 1969 all swimming world records had to be made in a 50m pool.
On the 12th April 1969 the Beach Baths in Durban was the venue for the Top Ten Age Group gala - the top ten swimmers in each event and each age group were invited to swim. Karen went down the Durban 19 days early, to swim with Alex Bulley and prepare for an attempt on the 100m-backstroke world record. On the day she could only manage a time of 1:08,3, which was 2,1 seconds slower than the meters record held by American Kaye Hall.
Before setting off on her final European tour, Karen starts training with Alex Bulley in Durban at the of May 1969, as Frank Gray was moving to coach in Sasolburg. This trip was to result in her best swim – the 100m backstroke record that stood for four years.
World record number 17.
6th July 1969 – Utrecht, Holland. Karen sets a new world record for the 100m backstroke in 1:05,6. This record, which was set in the first leg of the medley relay, stood for 4 years until broken by East German drugs cheat Ulrike Richter.
These are all the swimming world records set by Karen Muir between August 1966 and July 1969.
In March 1970, at the Hillcrest pool in Pretoria, Karen swam for Griquas in the SA championships, where she won the 100 meters backstroke in 1:07,4. She also won the 100 butterfly in a new SA record and wins the 200 and 400 IM, without getting anywhere near world record times. She was now in matric, and obviously focused on the studies.
During this year Springbok swimmers competed against Rhodesia – without Karen, while in March1969 she did compete against the touring Australians Allyson Mabb, Lynn Watson and Karen Moras.
University – and beyond.
After accepting a scholarship Karen begins her medical studies at the university of the Orange Free State in Bloemfontein in 1971. She competes at the SA Universities gala, but does not appear at nationals held in Cape Town that year. She qualifies as a doctor and after marring fellow doctor Gerben de Graad, she begins to work in Ladysmith. The family relocated to Vanderhoof, British Columbia, Canada in 2000, where she was a family physician. She and Gerben were to separate.
Karen was elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1980. Her South African record in the 200 backstroke had been broken by Karen van Helden of Western Province at nationals in 1978, while the younger Karen also broke the 100m record in Cape Town in 1979. Karen van Helden also went on to become a doctor.
In 1998 she appears on stage with another springbok legend Penny Heyns, at a gala hosted by her alma mater Diamantveld Hoërskoolin Kimberley. She remembers her mother Yvonne Muir, who had been a big part of her life and had also passed three years earlier. Her grandmother Ann van Andel, her father veterinarian dr. Ronnie Muir and sisters Liana and Linda Muir had all played a part in her story.
Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, Karen passed away on April 1st. Her last long distance swim before she was diagnosed with cancer was a quick 800m swim in the 2009 Prince George Citizen Iceman in British Columbia, Canada. She did it backstroke, of course, as part of the Ice Matrons team with Deirdre Goodwin, Claire Radcliffe, and Karen Bancroft. "A friend of mine, he knew I could swim and asked me to be on this team, so I did. It was grueling, but it was fun. I like this, I'm just not as quick as I want to be. I've been wanting to do this for four years."
Her end came at the home of her sister Linda – in Mosselbay. She leaves daughters Ann-Mari Joyce, Karike Human and Marietjie de Graad, all of South Africa; a son, Dr Jan de Graad, of Vancouver; a granddaughter, Jenna Joyce; and sisters Linda van der Linde and Liana Barrett, both of South Africa. She also leaves her husband, Dr. Gerben de Graad, of Peace River, Alta., from whom she was separated.
“Dit was vir my baie lekker om ‘n dokter te wees. Ek het 22 jaar lank ‘n praktyk in Ladysmith in Natal gehad. En ook in Kanada.”
Muir het Suid-Afrika verlaat omdat dit vir haar makliker was om in Kanada ‘n bestaan te maak. “Ag, en ek het gatvol geraak. Miskien wou ek ‘n ook ‘n bietjie gaan kyk hoe dit daar is”.
Swem het nie vir haar natuurlik gekom nie. “Kyk, ek was bang vir die water. Op skool het ‘n dr. Oberholtzer op Saterdae swemgalas gehou oor die breedte van die swembad. Die pryse was lekkergoed, dus het ek begin swem.