Karen Muir - 18 World records

The Legend


Karen Muir set 18 world records between 1965 and 1969, but she was never allowed to compete in an Olympic Games, because of the international sports boycott of South African athletes that started in 1962. Despite that she totally dominated international women's backstroke, beating the Olympic champions when they came to take her on in her own country. 

Born and raised in Kimberley, her mother put her into swimming to overcome  debilitating shyness. She won her Springbok colours while only in standard 3, before attending the Diamantveld Hoërskool, where she matriculated in 1970 and went on graduate as a doctor at the University of the Orange Free State in 1975.

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 1m 08.7s at the ASA National Junior Championships in Blackpool, England.

Follow the menu links to newspaper articles from each year of he career.


Early Years

At the end of January 1964 the Griqualand West senior provincial team had 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 inter- high school championships - despite only being in standard 4 (one can imagine coach Frank Gray's influence here - getting his young swimmer some competitive swims before nationals).

1st Nationals - 1964 Port Elizabeth

By the time Griqualand West swimmers traveled to the 1964 South African National Championships 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 from Kimberley 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 The South African swimming championships were held in locations from Cape Town to Salisbury, and the trips often lasted up to two weeks for some teams, travelling by ship or by train in the early days. 

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 winning 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.

In October 1964 the South African Swimming  Union had entered  a Springbok men's team to compete in the British  ASA  Championships, where they won 9 of  the 11 titles. In 1965 SAASU would again sent a team to the British nationals - this time they took the girls also, including 12 year old Karen Muir. With Ann Fairlie already in the team, she was taken along as an 'additional' swimmer.


2nd Nationals - 1965 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 sometimes happened with precociously talented youngsters, Karen was to receive her high school colours for swimming long after getting a Springbok blazer. 


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.

The Springboks arrived with a reputation of dominance from the previous year - but the final result in 1965 would be enexpectedly spectacular.

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 had unexpected consequences!

Click here to see articles from 1965. 

Karen Muir with manager Alex Bulley August 1965

Karen with team coach and manager Alex Bulle reacting to the result of her swim.

1966 - High school - Kimberley

It was to be a momentous year for South African swimming and Karen Muir, as she started standard 6 at Hoërskool Diamantveld. In a time when air travel had an image of glamour and excitement in the 60s and the  reserve of the rich and famous, Karen began a period of life that was extraordinarily for a teenage meisie van die platteland. 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 and to fulfil 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. SAASU 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 medallist at the 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games and 1966 European Championships 100m backstroke winner, arrived in South Africa. The 1964 Olympic gold medallist and world record holder over 100m Cathy Ferguson, would arrived in time for the nationals held at the Beach Baths in Durban during March 1966.


Kiki Caron 


On the 16th February Ann Fairlie and Kiki Caron clashed in the Hillcrest Pool in Pretoria, where Fairlie won 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.

Karen - 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 senior backstroke events.

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. The 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 jewellery store! Swimming was big entertainment in Kimberley, with their very own world record holder in Karen Muir.

Unfortunately the officials had their own plans - they had scheduled a 220 yards backstroke for the gala. 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 110 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 

South Africa was soon to have two teenage world record breaking backstrokers. In Karen’s home pool in Kimberley - the South African champion Ann Fairlie set her first world mark when she broke Karen Muir's world record! Karen had a poor start and was catching Fairlie at the end of the race, resulting in a very close finish. In this 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 coach Frank Gray, must have been devastated! 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. Kiki Caron and Ann Fairlie were in the race, although Olympic champion Cathy Ferguson had not yet arrived in the country.

Karen 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 1966 South African swimming championships were due to start there 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 representing South Africa in 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.

1964 Olympic medallists - Virginia Duenkel, Cathy Ferguson and Kiki Caron.

Relive the moment America's Cathy Ferguson set a world record winning the 100m backstroke at the Tokyo 1964 Olympic Games. This is who 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.

World record number 3 - Durban, 1 March 1966

The 1966 South African swimming championships were held at the Beach Baths in Durban. The 13 year old Karen Muir broke the 110 yard backstroke world record in that same pool 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 justice had been done - their champions were the true world champions!!

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 Muir's and Frank Gray were allowed to travel home - without any passports. 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.

Click here to read the 1966 newspaper articles of Karen Muir and her trips.

In July 1966 Karen undertook another extended Springbok tour - to France, the USA and Canada. 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 visiting 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. Friction with SAASU and the management of Karen Muir was to have a big impact on the 1967 tour.

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 in the French town of Beziers, where they were allowed to swim unofficially in an international event including Spain, Italy and France. Although not part of the official international competition, the South African swimmers certainly made an impact as first Ann Fairlie and then Karen Muir world backstoke records. 

Ann Fairlie's second world record - Beziers - 23 July 1966

Fellow Springbok swimmer and arch rival 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.

The photo below shows the three - with Karen Muir looking less than happy with at the occasion! Two days later she sets her own new world record in the 200 backstroke.


World record number 4 - Beziers, France, 25 July 1966

Karen Muir responded to Ann Fairlie's world record breaking effort by breaking the world record for the 200m backstroke, which was held by Cathy Ferguson since September 1964.  Ann Fairlie finished second, with the French champion Kiki Caron finishing third. This was the record Karen had attempted to break during her trip to Rome earlier that year.

Watched by her parents Karen had a good start, but France's star Kiki Caron touched first at the 50 metre turn. Then Karen caught up and raced into the lead, boiling the water around her. When she went into the last lap the large crowd jumped to it's feet to shout and urge he on. She won by eight yards from Ann Fairlie whose time was 2:30,2 sec.

"I had no idea I was near the world record," Karen Muir said afterwards.  

 

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!

Familiar faces in the crowd for Karen were Patty Caretto - seen below during her in Kimberley earlier in the year.  Another was Cathy Ferguson, who had swum against Karen in Durban earlier in the year, and was a Los Angeles local. Ferguson was the first-ever international Swimmer of the Year in 1965 - an accolade won by Penny Heyns in 1996 and 1999. Making the for cover of Swimming World magazine was in itself an achievement and a honour for both swimmers.  

Click here to see a video of Patty Caretto, which gives an insight of life on the road for the young international swimming girls like her and Karen Muir. The chaperone on Patty's trip to South Africa was Jane Stafford. Read about how she had been helped and inspired by Springbok swimmer Jenny Maakal at the 1932 Olympic Games. 

On 2nd August 1966 at the the Los Angeles Invitiational meet, Karen Muir won the 200m backstroke in a meet record time of  2:28,1. Her time was a second slower than the world record she set in Beziers. She also 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 at the Canadian gala in Vancouver.


In August 1966 AAU nationals were held at the Woods Pool in Lincoln, Nebraska.

It was the next destination of the Springbok tour. They were joined there by a number of South African swimmers, like Vernon Slovin (a former Frank Gray squad member) and Basil Hotz from Johannesburg, who were swimming for American universities. The pool was a 50m outdoor venue, which turned out to be a problem, as the weather turned cold and hampered the swimmers performance. Lincoln is perhaps more well known in recent South African swimming circles as the home of the University of Nebraska swim team - where world record holders Penny Heyns, Peter Williams and other South Africans would receive university scholarships. In the end of the tournament the Springboks won two titles and a silver, with Ann Fairlie winning the 100 backstroke and Karen Muir the 200 backstroke in a new world record time.

 
The cream of US swimming was there - Mark Spitz, Don Schollander, Catie Ball, Charlie Hickox were to compete - and Patty Caretto who was to set a WR for the 1500m freestyle. Don Schollander would also swim at the gala in Vancouver later in August, and then he visited South Africa in the next year.
 
While the Olympic Games limit entries to two swimmers per country in each event, the full depth of American swimming is present at their nationals. Little wonder the South African men largely failed in impress, despite setting a number of new South African records, but in women's backstroke the Springboks were supreme.

World record number 5 - Lincoln, Nebraska, 19 August 1966

Karen swam 2:26,4 to win the 200m backstroke at the American AAU national championships at the woods Hole pool in Lincoln by 2,5 seconds. With a split at the 100 of 1:09,4 she took another 0,7 out of the record she set in Beziers!

Cathy Ferguson was still on record as the official world record holder at 2:27,4, because Karen's time from Beziers had not yet been ratified by FINA. Ferguson finished in 4th place. 

In the 100m backstroke South Africa took the first two places - with Ann Fairlie winning in a new AAU record of 1:07,9. Karen Muir finished in second place in 1:08,4 and Cathy Ferguson in third place in 1:10,1.

After the AAU nationals the team travelled north to the Canadian city of Vancouver, where the state of British Columbia was celebrating a centenary of  Canadian Federation. A swimming gala was held at the University of Columbia outdoor pool, with swimmers from 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 brace Karen Muir in her own back yard.

World record number 6 - Vancouver, Canada, 26 August 1966

In Vancouver Karen, despite suffering from a back strain, set a new world record for the 220 yards backstroke in during her heat.

She beat Canadian champion Elaine Tanner by two seconds.

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'

On the next day, Friday 27th August 1966, Ann Fairlie beat Karen into second place in the 110 yards backstroke, and set her own third world record. Ann Fairlie recaptured the 110 yards world record from Karen in a time of 1:07,9.

Karen's 7th world record was for the 220 yard individual medley. Karen and Elaine Tanner finished tie in the race - well, sort of. Karen's timekeepers recorded her with he fastest time at 2:32,0 and Tanner with a time of 2:32,1. However the the (Canadian) touch judges claimed that Elaine had touched first.

FINA had previously decreed that world record could be shared, but the lawyer Harry Getz - President of SAASU, argued against Karen Muir being awarded the world record. He claimed the Canadians had not heard about the time Claudia Kolb ha done at the US championships, where karen and the rest of the team had just competed. Kolb had done a time of 2:7,8 in the 50m metric pool at Lincoln. 

World record number 7 - Vancouver, Canada, 28 August 1966

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 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. Claudia Kolb  won the US title in August 1966 in a time of 2:27,88, although that would only recognised as a new record by FINA on 31 December 1966.

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, headed 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 Muir's 2:23,8 world record, which Karen van Helden eventually did break on 8th March 1978, in 2:21,4. 


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 nearby for support. Karen was to receive hero's welcome in Johannesburg, where the SAASU management turned out, with the local mayor - and another when she eventually arrived in her hometown of Kimberley.

By September 1966 Karen was back at school. At Diamantveld Hoërskool she was awarded her full colours for swimming - the school's highest accolade for a sportsman. This honour is usually reserved for older pupils - but Karen's case they obviously an exception! Life returned normal - Karen and her sister Linda were selected to swim for their province against Northern Transvaal, while coach 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. The tours were to have a negative impact on Ann's schooling, as  she failed matric that year and declined to tour the next year, as she had to repeat. No doubt this too had an impact on Karen and her parents view of her jet-setting. While Karen and Ann may have been competing in faraway places like France and Canada and overseas travel was still unknown to most South Africans,  but life at home and school and the swimming squad remained 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, so the whole family was to move to the northern Transvaal. It was headline news in Kimberley - their darling was leaving! In Pretoria Karen was to train under 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. The move must have been an unhappy one, as she was to return to Kimberley and Frank Gray by the end of the year. 

In 1967 the big swimming news for the coming year in was the visit by a Canadian team, which included the Elaine Tanner. During the winter the Springboks toured Holland, Spain and England, and in December 1967 US star Don Schollander toured around the country. Ann Fairlie missed the European tour that year, having to make up for failed matric the year before, which underlined the impact of these tours on Karen’s academic life.

World record number 8 - Hillcrest, Pretoria, 28 January 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. Karen had been training with oach Bob Campbell

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 visiting Canadian champion Elaine Tanner, who won 5 SA titles, while Karen took three. Her local rival Ann Fairlie had broken with her coach Cecil Colwin – and decamped to Kimberley to be coached by Frank Gray! No world records were set at this event - read more.

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 protesters 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 within the team, and in the end Karen's father flew to London after reading reports about some unhappiness caused by 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.

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 same 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 earlier in the year. 

The British press suggested Ludgrove had not swum any competitions yet that year, she had represented Great Britain at an event in Italy in March 1967, where she had finished fifth in the 100m backstroke.  Ann Fairlie had stayed at home to study for matric, and Linda Ludgrove had to contend with Karen on her own. 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 Karen was in standard 8, and the big news was the possibility of South Africa being allowed to compete in the 1968 Olympic Games, after being barred from the 1964 Tokyo 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 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 held in the 55 yard  Kimberly municipl pool, Karen Muir set 4 world records in two races. 


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. This time was three seconds faster than the world record set in Pretoria 12 months earlier at the Northern Transvaal championships.

Because a 55 yard pool is longer than a 50 metre pool, FINA regulations recognised both yards and meter records if the swim was done in the longer pool. 



World record number 12 and 13 - Kimberley, 27 January 1968

The next day she set new marks for the 100m and 110 yards events, in a time of 1:06,7.

She broke the world record set by Elaine Tanner, in July 1967, as well as her own 110 yards world record record of 1:07,5. The London Times of 29 January 1968 carried the report.

The 1968 South African swimming championships were held in Bloemfontein featured the team from Canada. Unfortunately Karen Muir was suffering from swimmers shoulder, and failed to compete in most of the championships. Elaine Tanner won both the backstroke events at nationals. 

She did however, win the 220 yards freestyle, and was selected to swim against the Canadians and a test, where she beat Elaine Tanner in the 100 backstroke. 

After nationals and the test, Karen swam at SA Schools, before leaving for an extended tour overseas. 

World record number 14 - Paris, 6th April, 1968

Karen again set a new world record of 1:06,4 for the 100 meters backstroke in Paris, beating her own record of 1:06,7 set in Kimberley. This time was beaten at the Olympic Games in Mexico City by Kaye Hall who won the gold medal in 1:06,2. Karen was to break this reord once more - at Utrecht in 1968.

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!

After returning home for two months, Karen embarks on another trip to the USA. In early June 1968 she moves to Johannesburg with her mother, to train at the indoor pool of the Sumitt Club in Hillbrow. Kimberley lacked any heated swimming facilities, and despite the sunny weather, temperatures often dipped below freezing during the winter months.

There was talk of her swimming at the ASA nationals at Blackpool in August, but nothing ever came of the suggestion, because "her entry was too late". She was also scheduled to swim in the Canadian nationals, until they decided to make their event "a closed affair".

The US swimming control body reacted to Karen's banning from the Olympics by staging a "mini Olympics" at Santa Clara, inviting swimmers from around the world to compete. At this event on the 8th June 1968, Karen equals the US record for the 100m backstroke, beating Elaine Tanner and American Kaye Hall. Hall was to win the 100m backstroke at the Mexico Olympic Games in a new world record, beating Karen's world record time.

After the Santa Clara meet, Karen travelled up to Los Angeles. to swim in the annual Los Angeles Invitiational. 

World record number 15 - Los Angeles, 12 July 1968

Swimming at the Los Angeles Invitational again, Karen Muir set a new world record in the 200m backstroke, finishing in 2:23,8, which beat her own record of 2:24,1 set earlier that year at Kimberley.

Susie Atwood of the USA was to break the record with a time of 2:21,5 one year later, while Lillian Watson of the USA won an Olympic gold medal in this event in August 1968 in the slower time of 2:24,8 – which was also a new Olympic record.
At the Amreican AAU Champiosnhips Karen wins the 200 backstroke in a meet record, but fails to beat her time set in Los Angeles. In the 100m backstroke she beats Ann Fairlie's meet record from 1966, and sets an new US record of 1:06,9.
Karen returns home, to school, while the rest of the swimming world competes in the 1968 Mexico Olympic Games, where Kaye Hall breaks Karen's 100m world record, while Pokey Watson of the USA wins the 200m backstroke in 2:24, 8 - a full second slower than Karen's world record set in Los Angeles.


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 Muir beat Linda Gustavson into second place in the 220 yards freestyle. Gustavson had won silver in the 400 freestyle and bronze in the 100m freestyle at the Mexico Olympic Games. No doubt it have Karen some satisfaction beating these Olympic medallists in her own backyard.

World record number 16 (or not) - Kimberley, 22nd January 1969.

On the 21st 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 22August 1965.

At the time Claudia Kolb held the world records for meters – both set in August 1968.
The 1969 South African national swimming championships were held at the Newlands pool in Cape Town. For Karen Muir it was probably a small affair, compared to the galas she had swum in over the past year, but for South African swimming it was a fantastic event which produced some remarkable races. Karen Muir would set a world record, and a South African record for winning six individual titles. 

World record number 17 (or not) - Cape Town, 1st March 1969.

On the last day of theSouth African championshipsat 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. Unfortunately both records were never officially recognised by FINA.

At the FINA congress held during the 1968 Olympic Games it had been decided to only recognise swimming world records set in 50 meter swimming pools, and both the Kimberley and Newlands swimming pools were then still 55 yards long.

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.

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. 

World record number 18 - Utrecht, Netherlands, 6th July 1969.

Karen sets a new world record for the 100m backstroke in 1:05,6. This world 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.

FINA world records can be set in the first leg of a relay race. In 1976 Jonty Skinner was accredited with two world records in one swim - the 50m of 23,86  which was his split for the 100m world record of 49,44. 

1970 - Matric  

With her final year at Diamandveld Hoërskool 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 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 focused on the studies, to ensure her life long ambition to become a doctor.

During this year Springbok swimmers competed against Rhodesia – without Karen, while in March 1970 she did compete against the touring Australians Allyson Mabb, Lynn Watson and Karen Moras.


In the beginning of 1971 Karen Muir begins her studies at the University of the range Free State in Bloemfontein. Signing in at the University of the Orange Free State, after accepting a scholarship Karen begins her medical studies at Kovsies in Bloemfontein in 1971. She competed at the SA Universities gala, but does not appear at nationals held in Cape Town that year.
Karen duly 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.
No-swimming Karen Muir seen here with Lee McGregor, Katinka Germishuis, Silvia Waddiloe and Ken Borain - during the test between South Africa and Rhodesia in January 1971.

A grown-up Karen Muir in 1972.

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 Hoërskool in 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 all played a part in her story.

Diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, Karen passed away at her sister's home in Mosselbay, on April 1st 2013. 

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.