Sweetenham encouraged Payne’s parents to move back to Britain so she could get the best coaching and, in 2001, the family settled in Heywood, Lancashire.
Born to British parents in Johannesburg, Keri-Anne Payne lived in South Africa until the age of 13. She made an impressive entrance to the international scene by winning the 400 m freestyle at the 2004 European Short Course Championships in the week of her 17th birthday. Although she has competed in freestyle and medley between 200 and 1500 metres it is in the open water events that she has flourished. She placed 11th in the first World Championships in 2007 but improved her times considerably in the run-in to the Beijing Olympics and it was no great surprise that she took the silver medal at the event's Olympic début.
Payne then won the 10 km open water at both the 2009 and 2011 World Aquatics Championships and was voted the FINA Open Water Swimmer of the Year in both years. She also won a bronze medal in the 400 m individual medley at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.
British star Keri-Anne Payne is the most successful swimmer in the history of South Africa’s Midmar Mile. At the official press launch of the 2012 edition of the world’s biggest open water swimming event, the seven-time champion explained why winning it was so close to her heart.
Born in Johannesburg, Payne lived in South Africa until the age of 13 and had her first taste of the world’s largest open water swimming event before she relocated to the United Kingdom. Yet her memory of winning the Midmar Mile 13-and-under title remains clear and a big highlight in her career.
“It was my first win and my family was ecstatic,” she recalled at Wednesday’s launch in Pietermaritzburg. “My dad’s done it [swum the Midmar Mile] something like 15 times, so it was always a really big family thing that we did. I love coming back because it’s such a good memory from when I was a kid.”
Then she revealed the motivation that has driven her since that time. “I remember my dad and brother telling me ‘well done, that’s really good’, but that Natasha Figge, I am not sure that there will ever be anybody as good as her and that was it. “I decided I wanted to be better than her. I guess I can thank my brother and my dad for their love of Natasha Figge, for me pushing on and going for the most number of wins.”
As of 2012, Figge has six wins. Payne owns the record with seven.
Usually Payne, who finished an unfortunate fourth in the 10km open water swim at the London Olympics, would be accompanied by a British team at the Midmar Mile. Things are different this year, however.
“I’m here on my own actually,” she explained. “Normally I would have come across with my old club, Stockport, but that’s not happening this year. I’m actually training with Chad [Ho, the three-time men’s champion]. I owe him a training camp.
“He came out and did an altitude training camp with me in Spain. He was my training partner and he was the biggest help possible. I owe him so much for helping me by coming out there, so I decided to come here a bit earlier [than usual], just to get a bit more distance training in and repay the favour for Chad training with me last year before the Olympics.
“It’s really good to be here and to give something back to the Midmar Mile,” Payne added, “because they [the organisers] have been brilliant with me. This is my 11th swim, which is something I’m so glad that I could do, and I’m so grateful to [event organiser] Wayne Riddin for helping me do that. Without his help and support it wouldn’t have been possible for us [the British swimmers] to have come out here as regularly as we have.”
Life has changed for Payne since the London Olympics. “It has been completely different, to be honest,” she said.
“I took a long time out of the water after London. I got married in the middle of September, so I didn’t really get back into the water until the middle of November, and I wasn’t doing much swimming.
“In terms of training, I’ve only just got back [into it],” Payne said. This is my fourth week of proper swimming, but it’s what I needed. I needed that time to refocus and get back to enjoying swimming again. “So that is what this year, for me, is all about. It’s all about getting in the water, enjoying it and doing the races I have always done since I was a kid, and the Worlds – just doing those races, but really just trying to enjoy them, taking all the pressure off.
“There’s no pressure on me. I’ve achieved and I’ve proved myself time and time again, so this year is about enjoyment and keeping my mind in the game, so I can carry on for the next couple of years. Really, at the moment, I’m taking it a step and a competition at a time.”
For many South Africans, Payne remains a daughter of the country, and they’re happy to tag her as “one of our own”. After all, this is where she learnt to swim. Until recently, her South African coach Di Williamson was the only female coach Payne had swum under, now she’s doing it once more.
After marrying former Scottish swimming star David Carry in September, Payne moved to Edinburgh, where she joined the Warrender Baths Club and she couldn’t sound happier about the move. “Edinburgh is such a nice place and I’m really happy up there,” she said.
From previously swimming in a group of eight swimmers, she’s now one of a group of 25 at Warrender, but the bigger numbers don’t bother her in the least, said Payne. “They’re such a great club. They have a brilliant coach and there are lots of really good kids there as well, so it’s a nice challenge for me, and it’s getting me back in the pool and getting the spark back, racing all the youngsters.”
The club’s coach is Laurel Bailey, an Australian, and Payne is thrilled to be working with her. “I must admit she’s such a brilliant coach. She really understands and has taken her time with me because she’s realised that I’m 25, I’ve been swimming competitively for 13 years, so she’s just trying to keep me excited and fresh in the water as well, so it’s been a really good change.” Some things, though, do not need to change. Like the Midmar Mile. It has been a constant on Payne’s calendar – even last year, when London hosted the Olympics – and she’s happy to return once more, aiming for a remarkable eighth title. If she adds another win to her superb record, she can be assured that the huge crowds at the popular event will celebrate her success like they would celebrate a South African victory.