Annette Cowley

Annette Cowley was a Western Province swimmer from Boston in Bellville, where she attended Settlers High. She won a scholarship to the University of Texas, where she graduated with a BSc degree in 1988.

Annette started swimming at age 9 when she was spotted by local coach Tom Fraenkel. Although he based some distance away in Constantia, Annette had the support of parents who transported her to training every day. In 1981 at age 15, she finished second in the 200 freestyle at the South African swimming championships in Port Elizabeth, and in 1982 won the event, and set new SA record in the heats. 

In 1983 she won 6 events, helped perhaps by the retirement of backstroke champion Karen van Helden. Karen Muir had achieved the same in 1969, and Paul Blackbeard in 1975. After swimming nationals she found time to compete in the South African still water life saving championships, where was was awarded Springbok colours and set a world record in the 200m obsticle race.

In 1984 she again won 6 events, and by 1985 she had moved to Austin in Texas.

After finishing matric in 1985, Annette joined the ranks of the swimming exiles from South Africa to swim at the University of Texas team under Olympic coach Richard Quick. Competing just after her arrival at the Texan International Invitational on 14th January 1985, Annette finished second in the 200 freestyle - in a 25 yard short course pool. By the 1st March she became the first Texas swimmer to qualify for the NCAA Championships that year - in the 500 yards freestyle. Annette was to a key member of the University of Texas team that won the NCAA Championships from 1985 - 1988. 

 In 1885 Annette had applied for British citizenship, through her mother's ancestry, and in May 1986, after assurances from the British Amateur Swimming Association, she swam at the British nationals, winning the 100 and 200 freestyle events. She was eligible for selection to the British to compete at the 1986 Commonwealth Games to be held in Glasgow in July.

Annette was selected, but then the anti-South African lobby threatened to boycott the Games if she and runner Zola Budd was allowed to compete in the Games. The matter went all the way to the British High Court, who ruled against the South Africans. Annette, already installed in the athletes village, was forced to leave and later to sit and watch the swimming from the stands. 

In 1988 the Texas women's team made history when they won the NCAA title four years in a row - and Annette became an All American in helping them achieve that. Annette win gold in the 800 freestyle relay at the 1987 NCAA championships, and All American Honours 9 times. 

Annette stayed on at Texas, competing in the NCAA championships and finishing her degree before returning home to Cape Town in 1988.  

When South Africa was re-admitted to world swimming in 1991 Annette decided to have one more go at making it to the Olympics.

The first post-boycott nationals were used as the 1992 Olympic trials in Durban. Annette she won second place in the 50 and 100 - both times to WP team mate Marianne Kriel - who was later to win a silver medal at the 1996 Olympic Games. Kriel's time for the 100 broke Annette's SA record, set in 1984. Unfortunately for Annette - and the new post-SAASU selectors - two second places at nationals was not enough to be selected for the first South African team to compete in the Olympic Games since 1960.

Annette re-appeared in the swimming press briefly when the Commonwealth Games were once again hosted by Scotland - Edinburgh in 2014. She featured in a BBC documentary titled Boycotts and Broken Dreams, and the following interview with Annette appeared in the English Sunday Times on 24 july 2014 (see bottom)

with coach Tom Fraenkel

Today Annette runs a business in Cape Town. Her involvement in swimming centres on her twin daughters Georgina and Olivia, seen below at the Mare Nostrum in Monaco June 2018, with 5 times Olympic gold medallist Missy Franklin of the USA. Olivia won the 50m butterfly at the SA championships in 2018 - at age 15.

Annette bing awarded the Frank Erwin Award at a reunion event in 2018.

‘I put on a brave face but I did cry’

July 13, 2014

The South African-born Annette Cowley has finally swum in the Edinburgh Commonwealth Games pool after her boycott pain of 1986

“THEY say water is a great healer,” notes Annette Cowley, having finally swum in the pool she hoped to compete in at the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh. Today is the 28th anniversary, right down to the day of the week, that she was escorted from the athletes’ village by police officers after the Commonwealth Games Federation ruled the South African-born swimmer would not be allowed to compete for England. She was a 19-year-old girl who became a political pawn, caught up in a boycott by 32 countries that saw the lowest turnout since the post-war Games of 1950 in response to the Thatcher government’s attitude towards apartheid.

Now a mum of three, Cowley returned to the pool with a BBC crew recently for a documentary that will be screened this week. It brought back all the old emotions — measures of bitterness, frustration, injustice — but also some belated catharsis for being unable to compete in her prime due to the country of her birth being a sporting pariah. “It was kind of a strange day for me because we went to the pool and I felt very emotional when I walked in. My heart was racing, but it was wonderful because they actually cleared the pool for me and I had it all to myself. I swam and felt so calm.”

Cowley’s is a complicated story but one worth listening to. She followed in the footsteps of Zola Budd, also banned from Edinburgh in 1986, as a South African of English heritage who attempted to use it to circumvent the sporting boycott, but there is one key difference. While Budd competed in the 3,000m for Britain at the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles, when she collided with Mary Decker, the home darling, and for South Africa at Barcelona in 1992, Cowley twice paid the price for her desire to compete on the world stage. She was not only excluded in Edinburgh but also from the South Africa team for the 1992 Olympics despite training hard to put herself in contention.

“I had quit swimming and was working full-time but when I heard South Africa had got back in I went to my boss and said, ‘listen, I have to give this a last shot, I really have to try and make this happen. If I can’t swim for England or Britain, I am going to try and swim for South Africa again’. I went back and went to trials, probably did the best times I have ever done.”

Despite them, Cowley feels the selectors were influenced not to pick her. She was to be punished again for what her critics claimed was adopting a flag of convenience. “Politically, we’ve had the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa, but it has never happened for our sports people. I don’t think they realise how tough it is to train every day relentlessly to be at the top of your game and have those opportunities stripped away from you.”

In 1986, her times in the English trials would have been good enough to take gold in Edinburgh. She refuses to torment herself too much with what might have been but went along to watch the 100m freestyle final. “I just watched the 100m and then left afterwards. It was tough to deal with and I think enough was enough and I just needed to get out of there and have a change of scene. I had been through a lot. I did cry. I put on a brave face for the media, but sometimes I just shut the door or you take it out in the pool. It is easier to cry in the water.”

Her parents, Ron and Sue, then flew over from South Africa to support her at the centre of a media and political storm. Ron, a Cape Town doctor, who died 11 years ago, knew how many hours the youngest of his three daughters had poured into her dream. “He was so involved in my swimming and so passionate about it. I trained on my own in the morning and my dad used to sit on the side and read the newspaper. It was freezing cold because it wasn’t heated. I would go in and turn blue and he’d say, ‘you can come home, you know’ and I’d say ‘no’. He was lovely to me.”

Sue has also passed away but kept meticulous scrapbooks of Cowley’s career and the traumatic summer of 1986. For years she couldn’t face the cuttings and the memories they invoked. “I put them in a cupboard and shut it.” Yet now she is planning a book and is glad they are there to help her with it. She has one of the scrapbooks with her as we speak in a cafe in Edinburgh and it reminds you that this was front-page news back then, plus fodder for cartoonists and satirists inside as they showed Thatcher at odds with the Commonwealth leaders with Budd and Cowley in limbo between them. She became an unwitting and unwilling symbol of white South Africa.

“It was very hard to comprehend because nobody ever asked my personal views and opinions. I grew up in a very liberal English-speaking home and this just happened to me and I felt like an innocent victim. I just stood for a symbol of the white South African government at the time and it was also very confusing because I was being asked to do things like renounce my South African citizenship, but I was scared to do that because my family was back home and I didn’t want to be stopped from going back to see them. It was extremely controversial and very difficult, initially, not having someone with me to help me through the process at such a young age. As a young girl, I was simply trying to get the exposure, get the competition and maybe have the opportunity to win gold.”

Instead, her childhood dreams died on that Sunday morning in July 1986 when she was marched out of the Games village. “I don’t think anybody who has the opportunities that they have now would understand what we went through. I wasn’t exposed on an international level to anybody, to any of my heroes that I had read about in Swimming World magazine. You did feel very isolated.”

She wasn’t aware of apartheid growing up, living in a bubble well away from its many atrocities. “Where we went to school it was all white kids and now it is very different. My kids don’t know the difference between black, brown or white, they really don’t, they are so integrated now, which is wonderful, and I feel quite sad that when I grew up in South Africa we never had that.”

Her own children are strong swimmers. “My son, who is 16, seems to prefer water polo and is doing really well. He seems more interested in swimming lately, but I am figuring that might be because there are some pretty girls at the pool. One of my twin daughters is doing really well and winning nationals in her age group. My other daughter is more into ball sports. They have to figure it out for themselves.”

She missed them during her trip to Edinburgh but it also gave her time to explore the city. “I never got to see how beautiful Edinburgh was — the history, the buildings — so this time round I have really taken full advantage. I have walked and walked and walked. There’s a lot of hills and steps.”

Yet it was the short flight down into the Commonwealth Pool at Meadowbank that was the most significant for her and, after a 28-year wait, that moment of calm isolation in its healing waters that followed.

Boycotts and Broken Dreams: The 1986 Commonwealth Games

by ZwemZa on July 17th, 2014

Twenty-eight years ago, swimmer Annette Cowley went to the Royal Commonwealth Pool in Edinburgh to watch a Commonwealth Games race.

It was a race she desperately wanted to take part in, a race she could have won. But she was banned for one reason. She was South African.

A day before the competition – on 24 July, 1986 – Cowley was escorted out of the athletes’ village, forbidden from competing for England after a last-ditch court appeal failed.

Cowley’s story is revealed in a BBC Scotland documentary, Boycotts and Broken Dreams: The Story of the 1986 Commonwealth Games, which explores a Games marred by politics but remembered for sporting triumphs.

“It was a pretty unique situation and watching my race was very hard,” said Cowley.

“Especially because I knew I could have won that race and the time that I did at the trials was actually faster than the girl who won the race from Canada.”

Jane Kerr won the 100m freestyle in 57.62 seconds. Cowley qualified with 57.51.

Along with South African runner Zola Budd, Cowley was banned from competing for England by Commonwealth officials on 13 July on residency grounds.

It was an apparent move to appease African nations threatening a boycott over Margaret Thatcher’s refusal to impose sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa.

It didn’t work. In the end, 32 of the 59 eligible nations withdrew.

The 1980s was a time when South Africa’s sports stars were banned internationally because of their government’s policy of racial segregation.

Frustrated, Cowley – who has an English mother – took the opportunity to race for England at the Games. Her last-minute ban did not just affect her swimming.

A private person who became the centre of a media storm, Cowley recalls searching her room at the athletes’ village for any hidden cameras and turning her back to other restaurant customers in fear of being recognised.

Cowley thought her chance had finally arrived when South Africa was welcomed back into the fold for the 1992 Olympics.

Despite clocking some of the best times of her life, selectors decided not to take her as she had already represented England.

“I guess South Africa won,” she reflects. “The people of South Africa won in the end because the sanctions being imposed or us not being allowed to compete, it was part of making change in this country.”

Cowley was not the only swimmer who was affected by the 1986 boycott. Bermudan swimmer Victor Ruberry remembers talk of his Caribbean nation boycotting the Games before he arrived in Edinburgh.

On the day Cowley was marched out of the athletes’ village – the same day as the opening ceremony – the Bermudans still had no idea if they would be competing.

The country’s leader John Swan gave his support to the team. They frantically got dressed into their uniforms, including their Panama hats, and rushed to Meadowbank Stadium.

Having missed their slot, they marched on just before the host nation and received one of the biggest cheers of the night from Scottish fans facing a Commonwealth Games taking place without half of the Commonwealth.

Ruberry was not there. He was hoping to swim in the 100m breaststroke the following day.

Team manager John Morbey came into his room at midnight to finally confirm he would be competing. By the time he had reached the pool, Ruberry knew it was all in vain as Bermuda would join the boycott.

Ruberry was disqualified for keeping his head under water at the end of his race.

He said: “There’s a ritual that swimmers go through before competing. They shave down their body in preparation.

“I remember sitting in the bathtub…I was in total disbelief, and then we heard that we’re probably going to pull out anyway and it was just it was a bit of a farce. As far as being focused for the competition it was kind of like ‘what’s the point?'”

The Bermudans decided to protest by hanging bed sheets with ‘Bermuda wants to stay, don’t penalise our athletes’ out of their windows.

Ruberry added: “We felt that we were pawns, that we had no say in any of this, yet we were the ones who’d spent our lives, our money, preparing to represent our country and then all of a sudden we were being pulled out.”

‘All I ever wanted to do was swim’

23 March, 2014

“My coach told me I was going to be a swimming superstar – and I believed him.

“The worst thing that could ever have happened to me was to be told by my own country that I could not represent them in the 1992 Olympics. After all the training and the sacrifices.

“For these types of events, you are training for between four and six hours a day, year in and year out. And then, somebody makes a political decision and it’s all over.”

These were the emotional words of former Springbok swimmer Annette Cowley-Nel, 47, as she looked back on her illustrious swimming career. Like South African running star Zola Budd, Cowley (her maiden name) became a casualty of apartheid at the height of her career in the 1980s and early 1990s, and was never able to represent South Africa in the Commonwealth Games, the World Championships, or the Olympics.

Today Cowley-Nel lives in Constantia and co-owns a successful marketing and brand-positioning business with her husband, Jeremy Nel, focusing on luxury brands.

She recently scaled down work-wise to spend more time with their three children, Jordan, 16, and twins, Georgia and Olivia, 11.

During our interview, Cowley-Nel showed Weekend Argus the numerous scrapbooks which her mother, Sue Cowley, painstakingly compiled through her swimming years, but became choked up as she recalled some of the blows along the way.

Cowley-Nel, a “laatlammetjie” with two older sisters, grew up in Bellville, where her father, Ron Cowley, worked as a physician. A natural sportswoman, she started swimming as a 9-year-old pupil at Boston Primary School in Bellville.

While attending a children’s stroke clinic, coach Tom Fraenkel identified her potential, asked her to start training with him, and told her he’d make her a star.

“My mother used to drive me from Bellville to Newlands every day. When she was dying ve years ago, I said to her, ‘Mom, I can’t believe what you used to do for me. I can barely make it up Wynberg Hill to take my kids to swimming.’ She said to me, ‘Ag, Nettie, the traffic wasn’t so bad in those days.’

“I was a self-driven child. My parents supported, but never pushed me.” Her biggest dream was to get her Springbok colours, which she did in 1982, aged 15, then again in 1983 and 1984.

“In South Africa in those days that was as far as you could go. I could not compete internationally because of sanctions. People around the world noted our times, but they weren’t recognised, which was sad.”

Cowley-Nel worked on improving her times and winning whichever titles she could in South Africa. “Swimming South Africa tried to give us as much experience as possible. We went on various ‘undercover’ swimming tours to places like Israel and Taiwan – but we would often be turned away from events at the last moment. Even though we didn’t have much international exposure, we had some great experiences, meeting people from other provinces.”

An all-rounder in her swimming, Cowley-Nel won six titles for two consecutive years at the SA Nationals, in 1983 and 1984, but started specialising in the 100m and 200m freestyle as she got older. “I loved the sprint events.” Having been awarded a swimming scholarship to the University of Texas in the US, Cowley-Nel left South Africa straight after matric, in January 1985, and signed up for a BSc degree with a major in advertising.

“They wanted me to represent them in the National College Athletic Association (NCAA) competition in March that year, one of the most important events on the swimming calendar.” Cowley-Nel found herself in the same university team as a number of the world’s top swimmers of the time.

“Our coach, Richard Quick, was the US Olympic swimming coach, who recruited top swimmers from all over the world. People who had been my heroes back home were suddenly my roommates. The University of Texas swim team was ranked third in the world, next to the US and East German national teams. Even the training sessions were competitive.”

Cowley-Nel loved her time there. “We won the NCAAs four years in a row which, to this day, has never been repeated. No university has ever done that again in the history of the US.”

Encouraged by her coach, she looked for opportunities to compete internationally. “I could compete at the US Open for the Texas team, but was still not allowed to compete for my country.”

Denied her first choice of swimming for South Africa, Cowley-Nel acquired a British passport through her mother, who was born in England, and in the summer of 1986, took part in the British nationals, which were the trials for the Commonwealth Games team for England.

She won the 100m and 200m freestyle races – and got into the team to go to the Commonwealth Games, representing England.

“But if I had known what an enormous can of worms it would open, I’d never have done it,” she says now. “It turned into a complete hoo-ha. People were questioning where I was born and what the rules were about participation in the Games…

“The whole saga of Zola and me competing in the Games became such a huge thing that even the queen and Margaret Thatcher got involved. “Other Commonwealth nations threatened to pull out of the games if we competed.

“It ended up in the high court in London and, the day before I was due to swim my race for England, I found myself being police-escorted out of the Commonwealth Games village…”

She said “it was huge”, with “press following me everywhere”.

“The story had become enormous. I became paranoid. The British press hooked on to the story and did not leave me alone.”

Cowley-Nel recalled how, devastated that she could not race, she sat with the New Zealand team to watch her “speciality” race – the 100m freestyle. Canada’s Jane Kerr won a gold medal in the race, with a slower time than Cowley’s at the British trials.

“So that was that. I felt completely deated. “I was just 19. All I wanted to do was swim. The whole controversy aected so many top South African sports people at the time.”

Having “had that door close in my face”, Cowley returned to the US to finish her degree.

Her coach encouraged her to go back to compete in the World Championships in England, but her heart wasn’t in it. “I didn’t want to go through the whole hoo-ha again. I loafed through the races, as if I was in a depression. There seemed to be no point…”

After graduating in Texas, she returned to South Africa and got a job in marketing. But, in the early 1990s, as apartheid was ending and Cowley-Nel heard that South Africa would be able to take part in the Olympics, she started swimming seriously again and went to the South African Olympic trials in 1991.

She was dealt a heavy blow when she was told that, because she had swum for England, she would not be allowed to compete for South Africa.

Cowley-Nel tearfully recalled her second round of devastation. “I’d tucked this all away… When I think about it now, it all comes back.”

In spite of the knocks, Cowley-Nel said there were many highlights in her career, including the thrill of getting her Western Province Schools colours at the age of 9, and Springbok colours at 15, after breaking the South African records in the 100m and 200m freestyle.

“Winning a gold medal in the 4 x 100m medley relay in the US Open for the university team was also very exciting.”

After learning that she could not swim for South Africa in the Olympics, Cowley-Nel decided to give up swimming seriously and focus on her career.

“Marriage was my prize,” she quipped, adding that she’d be married 20 years next month. “When I met Jeremy, it was love at first sight.”

Interestingly, while her twin daughter Georgia is a “fantastic” water polo, hockey and netball player, the other, Olivia, has chosen to compete as a swimmer. “Olivia is very self-motivated like I was, and highly geared to compete,” said Cowley-Nel, who predicted great things for her daughter.

Asked about her dreams for the future, Cowley-Nel said: “I would love to help swimmers at an elite level one day. I still feel a calling of sorts… as if there is unfinished business.

“The South African women’s swimming team don’t do as well as they could. I am very good at mentally preparing people for races. I have often wished they could take me to the Olympics as a mentor. That would round o the picture for me.”

These days, she still trains with the masters group of swimmers occasionally. “They encourage me to compete, but I’ve had enough. My time has come and gone.”