South African Aquatic Sport History

This site is mainly about the history of competitive swimming in South Africa and the neighbouring countries like Rhodesia and South West Africa that competed in South African events. 

Aquatic sports include swimming, water polo, diving, synchronised swimming. Many people also participated in lifesaving and multisports - triathlon, biathlon, and biathle.

Olympic and Commwealth Games

World Champions and Medalists

Aquatic sports

Provinces of South Africa

World Records

South Africans have set numerous swimming world records.

World records and Olympic records were set by South African swimmers. Karen Muir set 18 World records between 1965 and 1969, and Penny Heyns set 12. At the Athens Olympic Games in 2004, the South African men's team set a new world record in winning the 4x100 freestyle relay.

Springboks Colours

Awarded to all South Africans who represented the country at international sports events.

Springbok colours were the highest sporting honour a South African could achieve. The award was highly coveted as Springboks of any sports were revered. →

Karen Muir

The biggest star in South African aquatic sports history.

Karen Muir was never allowed to compete in an Olympic Games. Despite that she totally dominated international women's backstroke for 5 years, beating Olympic champions and setting 18 world records in South Africa and overseas.

Tourists to South Africa

Australian world champion Ernest Cavill toured the Cape in 1898.

Over the years several aquatic sports competitors, teams and coaches have visited South Africa and Rhodesia, competing in local events and participating in clinics and exhibitions.


Many publications have recorded the aquatic sports history of South Africa., Rhodesia and South West Africa

Newspapers, Magazines, Provincial yearbooks, Biographies, Histories and pamphlets, and other swimming-related publications from southern Africa.


Numerous South African swimmers and coaches have left to compete overseas - most of whom never returned to their home country.

In 1952, the University of Oklahoma was one of the first institutions to attract foreign athletes, by recruiting South African swimmers. Many others have since followed, including coaches like Canadian Olympic Cecil Colwin (right). 


Many people have contributed their personal collections, including Dutch champion Ada Kok.

People involved with aquatic sports commonly collected newspaper articles, telegrams, photographs, and other memorabilia connected to their sport. These were often placed into large scrapbooks.


Professor Finney, Jimmy Green, Rachael Finlayson, and Alex Bulley were some of the early swimming coaches in South Africa.

Coaches provide continuity in any sport, although they seldom get credited with the success of their charges. They bring decades of experience, knowledge, and passion for their sport to bear on the raw talent of their athletes, without whom the swimmers would have little chance of realizing their own potential as competitors. →

South African Amateur Swimming Association

The Union of all the sporting provinces governed aquatic sports in South Africa from 1899 and became a member of FINA in 1909.

Aquatic sports in South Africa were traditionally amateur sports managed on a provincial basis, by a national governing body known as the South African Amateur Swimming Union (SAASU). At the time of it's founding in 1899, the first member Provinces of SAASU just were Western Province and Eastern Province. The first national water polo championship event, known as the Currie Cup Tournament, was held at Port Elizabeth in 1900. →

South African Universities

Intervaristy (SAU aquatic sports held their first inter-varsity tournament in 1929.

Inter-varsity aquatic sports began in 1929, between the Universities of Cape Town, Pretoria and Witwatersrand. The person most closely identified with SAU aquatics was Harry Getz, and much of the information about SAU came from his archives.

In Memoriam

In memory of those died before their time.

Swimmers like Muriel Ensore-Smith, who died young. Many remain forgotten today.

Portuguese Mozambique

Neighbouring Mozambique had an active sporting culture, including swimming, diving, and sailing.

The Portuguese colonists in Mozambique and Angola played only a small part in the history of aquatic sports of southern Africa, but for many, it was a memorable one. Manica (right) was a popular stop for tourists on the road from Rhodesia to the coast at Beira.


An entire generation of South African athletes missed out on international competition between 1961 - 1991.

According to some, ancient Greeks forbade war during their Olympiad. Politics has always impacted sporting activities, - wars, boycotts, conscription, etc. In the campaign to enforce majority rule in all southern African states, sports boycotts were used by politicians as a weapon of war.


Pools and other places where aquatic sports history was made - tidal pools, harbours, swimming pools, beaches, rivers, dams, quarries

Despite the freezing winter temperatures on the highveld, the hot summers in South Africa encouraged the development of aquatic sports amongst the Europeans who settled in the sub-continent. At first, they built tidal pools along the dangerous coastline of the Cape, and later followed the English tradition of indoor bathing houses. →

Non-white swimming

Aquatic sports history from the Coloured, Black, and Asian communities of South Africa.

Little information is available about the aquatic sports activities amongst the non-white communities in South Africa. Some events were reported in the press. Much more research is needed to capture this history.

Thys Lombard interviews

Local swimmer and lifesaver speaks to VIP's and others from the aquatic sports world

Jonty Skinner, Paul Blackbeard, Lee McGregor, Geoff Grylls, Libby Burrell, and others.

private school  Private Schools

state schools  State Schools

municipal  Municipal pools

clubs  Clubs

universities  Universities and Colleges

lifesaving open water  Lifesaving and Open Water

no pool  No facilities visible

dead  Dead Pools