Mandy Buchner was a pupil at the St Dominic's Priory school in Port Elizabeth. She swam with coach Tom Connell at the PEA Swimming club, based at the Grey High School pool. She was a backstroke specialist, just like her future husband Andrew Dean who also swam with the same squad.
Andrew Dean was later to become the coach for the South African 'band of gypsies' group of travelling triathletes who trained in France. This group included Mandy Dean, future world champion Simon Lessing and fellow Eastern Province backstroke swimmer Kevin Richards.
Like most local swimmers Mandy competed in the annual Redhouse River Mile. In 1977 she finished second behind Springbok butterflyer Jennie Hardwich from East London - by 1,5 seconds!
Eastern Province swimming team to the South African swimming championships at Ellis Park in March 1978, with Mandy Dean and Andrew Dean.
After retiring from professional triathlons Mandy setteled in Sardinia Bay outside Port Elizabeth, where she works as a swimming teacher.
In a time when South Africa was still banned from the international sporting arena, a small party of local triathletes made their way to Europe to pursue their dreams of making a living from the sport. ‘Trailblazing’ their way across the continent, this closely-knit group eventually produced two world champions, paving the way for several young South African triathletes to find places in French and German clubs.
One of these hardy individuals was a lady by the name of Mandy Dean, whom most SA triathletes of today would probably have never heard of. A native of Port Elizabeth, Dean pursued a professional triathlon career internationally for over five years, before returning to her home shores. A true pioneer of the sport here in South Africa, Mandy is now a swimming coach in her hometown, providing up and coming youngsters with a platform to develop their skills at an elite level.
“I spent my entire youth swimming up and down a black line” recalls Dean of her formative sporting years. “I was more into the social element, however, and moved into surf lifesaving as I got older.”
As with many triathletes, Dean got into the sport by accident, borrowing equipment in order to complete her first event. “I ended up doing really well in my first race here in PE, so I bought a bike and started training more.”
Dean was soon dominating the national triathlon scene across all distances, winning the 1987 Durban Ultra triathlon. The prize for first place was a ticket to the Nice International in France, then one of the sport’s “marquee” events and unofficial world championships. Competitors would tackle a 4km swim in the Mediterranean, followed by a mountainous 120km bike ride and a flat 32km run along the Promenade des Anglais. Accompanied by the legendary Keith Anderson, Mandy recalls her shock at the severity of the course, and of being more than a little nervous of her prospects. “I had never ridden in the mountains before and here we were in the Maritime Alps! Keith was undaunted though, and taught me how to ride the down hills without hesitation.”
Both Dean and Anderson excelled in their first international outing, with Mandy placing an eventual sixth overall, a position that she would repeat on a further two occasions. “I was really happy with my performance that first year, especially with no experience.”
Dean then embarked on a journey to the Big Island of Hawaii for a shot at the sport’s crown jewel; Ironman. “We spent some time in the triathlon hotbed of San Diego immediately prior to Hawaii. After listening in amazement to the training volume of the pro athletes, I was totally psyched out. But the Ironman is an amazing event and I felt sure that I could make it.”
Despite her reservations, Dean exited the swim with six-time Ironman champion Mark Allen, eventually finishing eleventh overall in 10h30min. Satisfied with her result, Dean returned home to South Africa with the intention of being a bona-fide professional triathlete.
This would prove difficult, however, as it was impossible to compete internationally as a South African. “At his stage, Nic van den Berg of Longmile started sponsoring me, which made travelling to races within SA much easier. Springbok colors were the highest accolade that we could achieve and a great honor. But in 1989, I decided to see if I could get into the European professional circuit using my German passport.”
Thus began a ‘whirlwind’ adventure, which would see Dean become a respected competitor in Europe.
After another sixth place finish in Nice that year, Dean was invited to an Olympic distance event in Toulon. This was to be a turning point. “Simon Lessing, Kevin Richards, Mike Myers, Andrew Dean and I somehow fit our bags and bikes into a tiny rental car and arrived there as unknowns. Simon and I both won and were suddenly sought after by French race directors.”
Like a band of gypsies, they travelled from race to race, living on prize money whilst sharing food and cooking skills. Dean recalls many a night where the group would go ‘fruit shopping,’ which entailed stealing fruit whilst using their bicycles as ‘getaway vehicles!’
“We eventually got invited to join a professional club in Salon de Provence, which lies between Avignon and Marseilles. They provided us with an apartment and sponsorship from the local supermarket,” says Dean, who remained with this setup for three years. “There were numerous South African triathletes who would stay with us for short spells. We would stick a huge map of France on the wall and spend hours discussing who would go to which race, and how much prize money was available.”
Both Dean and Lessing were fortunate to possess European passports, which they decided to use in order to fulfill their international ambitions. “I went to Germany as a total unknown for their national championships in 1989. There was a huge surprise in my beating their top women competitors and I was suddenly drafted into the German national team.”
In a true ‘rags to riches’ story, Dean became a fully sponsored professional almost overnight, something for which she is eternally grateful. “The Germans were really good to me. I got a manager and soon received loads of equipment and financial incentives. My German was terrible, but my teammates were kind enough to speak to me in English. They really made me feel at home.”
While Dean represented Germany at three world championships, other factors would be prove difficult in the ensuing years. “We would normally come back to South Africa during the off-season for a break. But in 1990, the European Triathlon Union prohibited Simon Lessing and me from even training here. So we spent three months preparing together in Zimbabwe.”
In an unfortunate twist of fate, Dean received a life-changing telephone call during that period north of the border. “My little sister was killed in a car accident and I took it really badly. I struggled to continue and wanted to quit triathlon. But I had signed contracts in Germany and was obliged to return.”
Having lost her will to compete, Dean soldiered through a difficult, but successful season, focusing on returning to South Africa with enough money to start over. “My heart just was not in it anymore. I became more focused on winning prize money than anything else, which I saved to build my dream house in Sardinia Bay. My last race was in Morocco. After finishing second, I casually threw my running shoes into a dustbin and vowed to never race again.”
Today, Dean’s life is still focused on sports. As an elite swimming coach in Port Elizabeth, Mandy has combined the wisdom gained from her professional career with that dream house to provide training camps for competitive swimmers aspiring to reach the next level. “I’m working with former world record holder, Peter Williams, who owns the Waterborn swimming club in Johannesburg. He brings groups of swimmers to PE for training camps and they stay at my old house in Sardinia Bay. Peter has converted it to accommodate forty people, where the swimmers can eat, sleep, train, get massage and attend lectures.”
“We teach them to how to train hard and stay focused, while still maintaining a sense of enjoyment. What it takes to get to the top, what it takes to stay there and how to comeback from disappointment. Essential lessons, which I learnt from my years of triathlon in Europe.”
Mandy Dean from Port Elizabeth was a trailblazer for SA triathletes competing internationally. Part of a small group of South Africans who made their way around Europe in 1989, here is the first installment of her amazing story
"After good 1989 season in South Africa, we decided to go over to Europe and see if I could get onto the pro circuit using my German passport. We went over to do the Nice International again, where I repeated my sixth place.
After that race, I was invited to an Olympic distance race in Toulon in Southern France. So Simon Lessing, Kevin Richards, Mike Myers, Andrew Dean and I squeezed into a tiny hire car with all our bikes and bags and somehow and went to the race. Simon and I both won and from then on were sought after by race directors all over France.
Like a band of gypsies we traveled from event to event, making enough money to get us to the next race. Simon, Kevin and I then got invited to join a triathlon team in a small town in the south of France called Salon de Provence, between Avignon and Marseilles. The club got us an apartment and organised our race schedule. We stayed with them for 3 years and, in our final year, received sponsorship from a supermarket chain; we got free food, which was a great help.
Simon, Kevin and I once arrived at a race up in the mountains very late because we got lost getting there. No one was around and the town was asleep. With nowhere to go we found the transition area and decided to sleep there. It was freezing so we put on all the clothes we had in layers and climbed into our bike bags. We got some really funny looks and laughs in the morning when the athletes started arriving and we were still zipped up in our bike bags. But they stopped laughing when Simon and I won the race!"
In the latest installment of Mandy's story, we find out about life in France circa 1989, chasing the dream of being a pro triathlete.
"There was a constant stream of SA athletes who would come over for short stays with us. Andreas Lombardozzi used his Italian passport and was a regular, as were Harald Zumpt, Louanne Rivett and others. They had to keep it very quiet that they had SA passports.
"I remember we stuck a huge map of France up on the wall and would sit around for hours discussing who was going to which race and how to get there and how much prize money was up for grabs. We would share food and cooking skills, had loads of fun and trained hard in the beautiful French countryside. Through fields of sunflowers, lavender, poppies, vineyards, orchards of apples, pears, peaches etc. Many nights we would go "shopping 4 fruit", with bags on our backs stealing fruit from the fields and using our bikes as 'get away vehicles!' We lived very humbly but always had enough to share. We really trail blazed our way through Europe with no help from home and only our bodies, bikes and wits to rely on."
After a few tough months in France, Mandy heads to West Germany in a bid to qualify for their national team.
"Simon (Lessing) and I were lucky because we had our foreign passports; he competed for Great Britain. I went to Germany for the first time to race in the German championships in 1989. It was a huge surprise when I beat their top lady, European and German champion Simone Mortier.
"Suddenly, I was part of the German national team; it felt like a real 'Cinderella' story. They treated me really well and threw so many great sponsorships at me; A bike company gave me 2 training bikes and a state of the art racing bike with disc wheels and tri spokes. Basics sponsored me clothes and shoes together with financial incentives, as did Valley and Andaman wetsuits.
"I got a manager and was totally fitted out when I got back to France. The Germans were really good to me and for the next 3 years I raced on the national team. My German was terrible but most of my team mates spoke English to me. It was too cold and rainy for me to train in Germany, so I traveled between France and Germany preferring the weather, scenery and the company of my fellow SA friends.
"One funny training story I recall about training with Simon, Kevin Richards, Andrew Dean and the other boys was a mountain session out of hell. I started out feeling a bit flat on the bike, even struggling to keep up on the flat roads. When we got to the mountains I died. The boys just rode away from me and the harder I tried the worse it got. I was left behind, cursing and grumpy. They kindly waited at the top. I angrily told them not to wait and eventually arrived home exhausted and defeated. Then I looked down at my back wheel and notice that my brake was scrapping and I had ridden all that way with my brakes on; The boys laughed and teased me!"
Now a fully-fledged professional triathlete, Mandy is living the dream and representing her adopted country at world championship level.
"I did literally hundreds of races over those years. Every weekend was a different race in a different place; it all became a bit of a blur! Racing for West Germany meant that I got to compete in the first ever Olympic distance World Champs in Avignon, France in 1989, and Orlando, Disneyland the following year.
"At the end of the European season, we would normally came back to SA for a break. But in 1990, the European Triathlon Federation took a stand and banned Simon (Lessing) and I from even training in SA! So we went to Zimbabwe and trained together there for 3 months. Everything was going well until I got a terrible phone call, which changed my life and will to compete: my little sister of 19 years old had been tragically killed in a car accident. I took it really, really badly and struggled to continue. I wanted to give up triathlon, but had signed contracts back in Germany and was obligated to return. It was a very hard season and, considering my situation, a good one. But my heart wasn't in it. I became more focused on winning prize money than anything else, saving it all to start my life over again in SA and build my dream house.
"My last race was an international in Morocco. After a good race where I finished second, I walked up to the nearest dustbin and casually threw my running shoes into it, retiring on the spot and vowing to never race again. And all these years later I never have. We shared a very special time of our lives together and will always remain close because of them."
Mandy Dean fills us in on returning home to Port Elizabeth. This series of installments on her career were used for an in-depth historical account of triathlon in South Africa, which is featured in the latest Ironman South Africa magazine. Available at various cycling and running outlets throughout SA. Alternatively, contact Electric Ink Media at <
Thanks to Mandy for making this piece happen.
"Today my life is still filled with sports people. For many years my ex-husband and I had a swim club here in PE. We then decided to focus on the development swimming with African kids.
I took a year sabbatical, traveling through India and studying yoga. Now I am back and coaching again. I am also working with my friend Peter Williams (ex world record holder) from Johannesburg who owns the WATERBORN swimming club. He brings groups of his top swimmers to PE for training camps. They stay at my old house that I built with my triathlon winnings, which can now house about 40 people; the swimmers sleep, eat, swim, get massage and do yoga every day.
The WATERBORN house is just outside PE in Sardinia Bay. We teach them how to train hard and be focused, while still having fun. I try to teach some of the wisdom gained from competing with some of the best athletes in the world. What it takes to get there, what it takes to stay there. And how to pick yourself up again and again, no matter what. When to quit and when not to. All essential lessons learned from my years of triathlon in Europe."