Champions of South African Swimming

1900 - 1960

In the first period South African swimmers won a relay medal in 1928, Jenny Maakal won bronze in the 1932 Olympic Games, and Joan Harrison won gold at the 1956 Olympic Games. 

In what was to become a feature of the South African sporting scene, emigrant swimmer Natalie Steward of Pretoria set a world record and won two Olympic medals for Great Britain, by way of Rhodesia.

1961 - 1991

During the decades of isolation South Africans continued to achieve some success. In women's backstroke Ann Fairlie from Johannesburg and Karen Muir of Kimberley dominated international women's backstroke - setting many world records - despite being excluded from international competition.

In 1976 swimming and surf lifesaving Springbok Jonty Skinner from East London set a world record in the 100m freestyle barely 6 weeks after the Montreal Olympics - from which he had been barred. Port Elizabeth swimmer Peter Williams set a new world record in the 50m freestyle in 1988.

Post 1991

The world record breaking South African men's 4x100m freestyle relay team - with an unhappy-looking Michale Phelps in the background.
After allowing South Africa back into world competition, it didn't the swimmers long to re-assert themselves on the international stage. In 1996 Penny Heyns began breaking world record in women's breaststroke events, taking both gold medals at the Atlanta Olympics and become the women's swimmer of the year - in 1996 and 1999.

At the Sydney Olympic Games in 2004 the South African men won gold in the 4x100 freestyle relay, in a world record time - an event before only ever won by swimming powerhouses the USA and Australia. Terence Parkin won silver in the 200m breaststroke and Penny Heyns bronze in the 100m breaststroke. South African swimming was truly back on the map!

In the 2012 London Olympic Games Chad le Clos of Durban surprised by beating Michael Phelps to take gold in the men's 200m butterfly, plus silver in the 100m, and world record holder Cameron van der Burgh won gold in the 100m breaststroke.

Empire and Commonwealth Games 

South Africa participated in the Empire and Commonwealth Games from 1930 until it withdrew form the British Commonwealth after becoming a republic in 1961. It rejoined in June 1994. Oonagh Whitsitt of Natal became the only South African diver to win an international medal when she won gold at the 1930 Empire Games.

2018 double gold winner Tatjana Schoenmaker (right) moved to Pretoria enrolling at the TuksSport High School, swimming with coach Rocco Meiring.

South African Internationals

Emigration has caused a loss of many international starts, and since 1994 the drain has accelerated.

Graham Johnston is legend in Masters swimming - and he left Bloemfontein to take up scholarship at the University of Oklahoma in 1953 - never to return. Natalie Steward is an Olympic medallist and world record holder for Great Britain, whose parents left Pretoria for Rhodesia, and later moved to England. 

More recent emigarnts include open water champion Keri-Ann Payne (above), Princess Charlene Grimaldi of Monaco, marathon man Lewis Pugh, world champion triathlete Simon Lessing and international iron woman champion Paula Newby-Fraser, and many others.

Local Heroes 

The earliest local hero was EM Wearin - who dominated swimming in the early 1900's. During the boycott years the local scene produced its own heroes - competitors who might have left South Africa to compete overseas but chose to stay - like Graham Hill, Jannie Horn and Paul Blackbeard.

Others like Annette Cowley and Gary Brinkman who tried unsuccessfully to win citizenship in other countries. A number of champions returned home from scholarships in the USA to become multiple title holders at the SA Championships.

The impact South African swimmers have had since re-admission hints at the true loss of 30 years of international participation - surely some of them would also have made it on the international stage.

Disabled Champions

Since the first Paralympic Games in Rome in 1960, swimming has been one of the main sports of the Paralympics. South African and Rhodesian disabled swimers have set numerous world records.

Natalie du Toit is South Africa's superstar of the Paralympic Games, but a number of other swimmers have also international success.