Simon Gray - Olympian and coach

1978 - Simon Gray's proudest moment - being congratulated by the Queen of England at the Commonwealth Games.

1968 Youth Cup - with Myra Eager, Bronwyn Allen, Don Balmar, Simon Gray and SAASU President Harry Getz

Simon Gray is member of the legendary Gray family.  His father Frank Gray coached Karen Muir to 18 world records, and was the Springbok swimming coach in 1975 and 1977. His elder brother David, and younger brothers Andrew and Nicky all won Springbok colours for swimming, while Andrew and Nicky also became swimming coaches in South Africa.

After moving to Kimberley from Watford in England, the Gray brothers began to compete in the Kimberley age group galas. By age 10 Simon had qualified to swim at the South African swimming championships, dominating South African age group swimming for the next 8 years.

At the 1976 South African swimming championships held in Durban's  salt water Beach Baths, Simon won the 200 backstroke, 400 and 1500 freestyle events - all in new South African record times. The 200 freestyle provided a spectacle when Simon was disqualified for false starting on the third start. His father coach Frank Gray showed his displeasure on poolside in a few strong words to his son on poolside!

The Gray family left Kimberley and moved to Durban, where he joined fellow Springbok swimmers Paul Blackbeard and Jaques Marais at Northland High. Frank Gray set up his swimming squad in Durban North. 

He won a swimming scholarship at the University of Houston and swum at the Mission Viejo Nadadores club in California while in the USA between 1977 and 1979. 

He swum for Great Britain at the 1978 Commonwealth Games in 1978, where he won three silver medals, and was also selected to swim at the 1980 Olympic Games in Moscow. At the 1976 nationals in Durban he swum 4:03,9 and 15:58,1 for the 400 and 1500 freestyle events.

In 1978 he swum 3:56,89 and 15:39, 39 for the second place swims at the Commonwealth Games.

In 1979 Simon contracted pneumonia and as a result his times at the Moscow Olympic Games were somewhat slower where he finished with times of 3:57,60 and 15:43,17.

After Moscow Simon quit swimming and began a coaching career in South Africa. Today Simon has built a reputation as a swimming coach at the Bloemfontein Seals Swimming Club, producing champions like Ryk Neethling and Lize-Marie Retief.

Simon Gray at the 1970 South African championships, with a youngish looking Jannie Horn in background

1976 Durban nationals

There it is writing - one can speak of Simon Gray in the same sentence as Brain Goodall, Casey Converse and Bobby Hackett. 

August, 2016
The 19-year-old Bloemfontein swimmer, Zane Waddell, is off to become part of the "Alabama Crimson Tide" at the University of Alabama in Birmingham. Waddell joins the American school swimming programme on a scholarship organised by his long-time coach, Simon Gray.

Swimming legend celebrates 29 years in City of Roses

May 6, 2015

When you ask swimmers who came under his guidance to describe Simon Gray, one of the foremost swimming coaches ever in South Africa, the answer would probably be "HE IS A LEGEND". The ones who disagree are ten to one those who couldn’t handle the dissipline he expects from his swimmers.

Last Thursday (30 April) this brilliant coach celebrated the 29th year of a lustrous coaching career in the capital city of the Free State. And, the day before, Gray celebrated his 56th birthday in style at the Mangaung swimming pool – being interviewed for an M-Net series, My Story.

This specific edition of the series is about four times Olympian and also Olympic gold medalist, Ryk Neethling. Neethling suggested that the programme would be incomplete if they do not interview Simon Gray, who had played a major role in his success.

Bloemfontein Courant was there to wish Gray a happy birthday, but also to keep an ear to the ground on what had transpired at the interview. It was mentioned that Neethling saw Gray as a role model when he joined Gray’s swimming squad (The Seals) at the tender age of 11. One of the TV crew members told Courant that Neethling expressed his thanks and admiration for Gray in no uncertain terms.

In turn, Gray stated in the interview that it was a pleasure and also easy to coach Neethling. He added: "Ryk had such a great mindset and followed his dreams. He was extremely dedicated and when proverbially asked to jump, he would ask how high."  Courant arranged for an interview with Gray and if you think his coaching success is his only claim to fame, think again.

Where did it all start? Gray’s father and mother, Frank and Valerie, were resident in England when Frank received an offer as full-time swimming coach in Kimberley. Simon, his older brother, David (57) and his younger brother, Andrew (53), were born in England and the whole family moved to Kimberley where the fourth brother, Nicky, saw first light in Kimberley in 1962.

Father Frank coached Karen Muir, one of the best swimmers of all time in South Africa. In 1965 Muir (12 years) became the youngest person to break a sporting world record in any discipline when she swam the 110 yards backstroke in 1:08,7.

Under Frank’s guidance, all four Gray brothers earned their Springbok colours, but it was Simon who scored a rare distinction when he was selected for the Springbok team at the age of 13 and improved the national senior record (1500m freestyle) at the same age.

Yet another distinction came his way when he tackled the best the seniors of the Rainbow Nation could throw when he stepped onto the starting blocks the first time at the national senior championships when he was only ten years old.

Later on they moved to Sasolburg and then to Durban where Gray matriculated at Northland High. During this period he represented the Springbok team no less than four times.

In 1977 he accepted a full scholarship at the Houston University (USA). He said: "I enjoyed my stay in Houston tremendously and whilst training very hard, I studied psychology of adolescents, as well as radio and television broadcasting."

It wasn’t long after his move to Houston that Gray was selected to represent his country of birth, England, and Great Britain.

1978 saw Gray win three silver medals at the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton (Canada) in the 1500m freestyle, 400m freestyle and 400m individual medley – all in British records. He added bronze in the 4x200m relay.

Gray said: "One of my proudest moments was when I was personally congratulated by the Queen of England." The photo has a special place in his house.

In 1978 he finished fifth (twice) at the world championships (1500m freestyle and 400m individual medley).

Then disaster struck. In 1979 he was hospitalized for six weeks with viral pneumonia and although he represented Britain in three events at the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, his body never recovered fully.

"I gradually started losing interest during the following two years and my dad offered me to take over his swimming academy in Durban, "but only after you complete your degree," his father added.

"This transpired in 1983 with approximately 60 swimmers at the academy," he added. Gray was only 24 years when he started coaching and that is young in terms of coaching such a big group.

In the meantime (1985) he married his wife, Sue and was offered the position of head coach at the Seals Club in Bloemfontein. "This was an offer I couldn’t refuse and on 30 April 1986 we were in Bloemfontein, boots and all."

Since then Gray coached 11 swimmers who became Olympians, 25 national senior champions and Springboks, as well as 33 Junior Springboks.

It is interesting to note that Gray has been Eunice’s coach for 25 years after the current head mistress of Eunice Primary School, Mrs Maureen Dale, invited Gray to start coaching the Grade Rs at the school. Coincidentally, Dale was coached by Gray’s father in the 1960s.

Gray coaches his 16-year-old daughter Bianca as well and Courant spoke to her (without Simon’s knowledge) and enquired what it was like to be coached by her father? "He doesn’t put pressure on me at all. I haven’t trained as hard as other swimmers, but I have come to realise that I need to put in much more effort to become the best.

Simon Gray met sy vrou Sue en dogter Bianca

SIMON GRAY, een van die beste swemafrigters wat die Vrystaat nog gehad het, het sowat 80 swemmers wat hy nou brei en hulle sal bepaal of hy oor twee jaar gaan aftree of nie.

“As enigeen van die swemmers genoeg belofte toon in die volgende twee jaar om op die wêreld se grootste verhoog te presteer sal ek nog aanhou. As daar nie iemand is wat kan presteer nie, sal ek die sport groet.”

Simon en die hele Gray-gesin is oor die land heen bekend vir hul prestasies in die swemsport en dit sal jammer wees as hy moet groet. In die geskiedenis van swem in die land, en veral in die Vrystaat en Noord-Kaap, is hulle omtrent huishoudelike name langs die swembad.

Simon het oorgeneem by sy pa, Frank, wat wêreldbekend geword het nadat een van sy swemmers die wêreld verstom het met haar prestasies. Karen Muir was skaars 12 jaar oud toe sy in Blackpool in Engeland die eerste van haar 18-tal wêreldrekords in die rugslag verbeter het. Met sy pa as sy mentor, was dit ’n gegewe dat Simon sou presteer.

Hy is op 29 April 1959 in Fulham, ’n voorstad van Londen, gebore. Hy was net drie jaar oud toe sy ouers besluit het om na Suid-Afrika te kom en hulle in Kimberley gevestig het. Die gesin is later na Durban waar hy tot in 1976 skoolgegaan het. Hy is daarna met ’n swembeurs na die universiteit in Houston in Texas.

Presteer in Houston

Dit is daar dat hy die eerste keer werklik begin presteer het. Simon het vier keer by Houston die All American-span gehaal en was ook die kaptein. Hy het aan die 400 men 1 500 m-vryslag deelgeneem, asook aan die 400 m-wisselslag.

Hy het sy Britse paspoort behou en ná die Britse kampioenskap in 1978 het hy sy groot kans gekry en het hy Brittanje op die Statebondspele en twee jaar later op die Olimpiese Spele verteenwoordig.

Simon het omtrent in die swembad grootgeword. Hy was ses jaar oud toe hy die eerste keer aan ’n swembyeenkoms deelgeneem het en hy een myl moes swem. Toe hy tien jaar oud was, het hy die eerste keer aan die Suid-Afrikaanse senior byeenkoms in die 1 500 m-vryslag deelgeneem. Die volgende jaar het hy op die Suid Afrikaanse byeenkoms aan die 1 500 m-vryslag deelgeneem en die vyfde plek behaal. Hy was in die daaropvolgende jaar tweede.

Een van sy beste prestasies was toe hy as 13-jarige die Suid-Afrikaanse rekord in die 1 500 m-vryslag opgestel het. Die rekord het 13 jaar gestaan voordat een van sy swemmers, Ryk Neethling, dit verbeter het. “Dit was een van die hoogtepunte van my lewe toe een van my swemmers my rekord verbeter het.”

Simon het ook ’n ruk as afrigter in Amanzimtoti gewerk. Terwyl hy eendag langs die swembad gestaan het, het hy ’n meisie sien swem. “Sy het na ’n kampioen ge- lyk en ek het haar genooi om by die klub aan te sluit. Sy het belang gestel, maar iemand anders het haar begin afrig. Daardie meisie sou later een van Suid-Afrika se groot kampioene in die swembad word: Penny Heyns, wat ’n slag binne twee weke drie wêreldrekords op drie vastelande verbeter het.

Afrigter van kampioene

Simon het in sy loopbaan baie kampioene afgerig. Kyk na die lysie: 11 swemmers wat aan die Olimpiese Spele deelgeneem het, 24 Springbokke en 33 juniors wat op nasionale vlak gepresteer het.

Dit is seker maar die gene wat reg is, sê hy. Sy pa het vir die Britte geswem en sy ma was ’n naelloper. Sy drie broers, David (57), Andrew (54) en Nicky (50), het almal vir Suid-Afrika geswem.

Om tussen al die grotes wat hy afgerig het, iemand uit te sonder is bitter moeilik, sê hy. Een swemmer vir wie hy egter die grootste agting het, is Ryk Neethling. Hy was baie toegewyd. Janine Steenkamp, Suzaan van Biljon, Lieze-Marie Retief, George du Randt en die Markgraaf-sussies was almal besondere deelnemers.

In sy loopbaan het hy baie grotes in aksie gesien. Hy huiwer ook nie wanneer jy hom vra om sy beste swemmer te kies nie. Die eer behoort aan Mark Spitz van Amerika. “Hy was ’n inspirasie vir baie. Ek het selfs ’n foto van hom op my kasdeur geplak.”

Ander grotes wat hy uitsonder, is Jonty Skinner, Roland Schoeman en natuurlik Chad le Clos. Vroue wat presteer het en wat hy uitsonder, is Karen Muir, Anne Fairlie en Kiki Caron van Frankryk.

Simon is getroud met Sue Field wat self ’n veelsydige sportvrou was. Sy het aan netbal en hokkie deelgeneem en het natuurlik ook geswem. Hulle het een dogter, Bianca.

Bianca is ook ’n swemster wat al haar Vrystaatse kleure verwerf het. Sy was ook ’n semi- nalis op die Suid-Afrikaanse senior kampioenskap in die 200 m-rugslag.