Brian Stewart

Brian Stewart moved from his hometown of Tsumeb in South West Africa to the Afrikaans Seuns Hoërskool (Affies) in Pretoria, where he became one of the first victims of the sports boycott that began in 1962. He broke his first South african backstroke record in 1963.

He was allowed to compete in England in 1964 and 1965, where the Springbok swimmer won three backstroke titles, and joined Karen Muir on those extended tours to Europe and the north America, competing in the AAU nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

 1966 photograph with Brian Stewart next to Karen Muir Muir


My journey into swimming started quite late in my life. I only learned to swim at age 10 in 1955 in the mining town of Tsumeb, Namibia (then South West Africa). The only pool around was at the mining corporation’s recreation club and how I taught myself to swim was to do a crocodile entrance into the water (sliding on my stomach) and swim underwater My nemesis was John Mc Duling in the other strokes. I swam a couple of school galas and always came first in the backstrokes. I was then taken on by an old gentleman named Maclennan who did some stroke correction and in 1957 I travelled by narrow-gauge train
This pictue was circa 1931 but the locomotives were the same. We had decent carriages though
to Otjiwarongo to participate in the first SWA championships. We had no manager or coach and just the 7 of us swimmers took it upon ourselves to enter. I had no clue how to start or turn in especially backstroke and indeed in those years we did two different versions of backstroke (one with a breaststroke kick and double arm over, much like inverted butterfly). Butterfly was a very new stroke then and none of us could swim it.
As it turned out I won the u-12 yrs championship (it was also my12 birthday) in Backstroke and 2nd in Crawl. When I returned to Tsumeb my mother just looked at my little medal and said: “Remember there will always be somebody to beat you!” Very encouraging! Anyway at age 15 (1960), my father (a magistrate) was transferred to Pretoria as Chief Magistrate and I moved schools from Tsumeb Secondary (my class of Std 8 consisted of 9 persons) to Afrikaans Hoër Seunskool with a class of roughly 250! I was gobsmacked and invariably pitched up in the wrong class between classes. Not familiar with wearing shoes (I went to school barefooted in SWA) and in my khaki safari suit school uniform, I had to endure many jokes (sandtrapper) and other more snide comments.
(A negative memory was the fact that when I became swimming captain at my school, I asked the teachers to take a team of 8 swimmers to compete in Jhb against KES and Helpmekaar. This was turned down yet they took a team of 30 rugby players by train to Cape Town then by Castle Liner round the coast to play rugby against the likes of Bishops, Grey High, Dale College etc. Swimming was not considered to be of any significance. Another negative at school, was that I was never awarded colours until 2 years AFTER leaving school and getting a Springbok blazer. Only then did the school contact me to say they have my colours blazer ready for me! I declined politely.)
At Affies, swimming was not encouraged but a friend, Dion Rőder convinced me to go to a club evening at Hillcrest Swimming Baths. I swam 110yds Crawl and came last! This almost resulted in me never returning to swim again, but thanks to Dion, I went again the next Friday evening and swam 110yds Backstroke (never knew a 55yds pool could be so never-ending) and lo and behold, beat the then reigning Ntvl Schools backstroke champion, Malan van Rensburg who became my best friend over the following years. The locals were intrigued by this chappie from the desert who could swim! The local coach, Tony van Zuilechim noticed me and offered to start coaching me. I had no idea what this meant. He charged R5 per month for ten sessions a week!
Within two months of Tony’s coaching, I won the NTvl backstroke title (we only did 110yds then) and was duly selected to my first Curry Cup to be held in Kimberley in 1961. When Malan congratulated me on my NTvl colours I asked: “What is NTvl?” I was duly fitted out with my Barberton Daisy blazer and track suit.
During initiation by some burly water polo players, I was shaved (down there!) and bathed in vodka. The perpetrators were none other than Springboks (and Olympians in 1960) Alan Brown, Ravenall Brown, Kalie Botha and Ferdie Botha. In my event, I didn’t do too well by coming 5th but did my best time.
The following year I was in Matric and it was the year that a team of 4 Japanese swimmers visited SA. It created a massive political brouhaha as Japanese were not permitted to travel in municipal buses or swim in a ‘white’ pool. After emergency meetings of the city councils, they were given honorary status and the swimming could commence. I came close to beating the Japanese Backstroker Nakahara at Hillcrest and became the toast of the town with headlines screaming : “Skoolseun Klop amper Japanees”. At this stage I had changed coaches to Pop Dyason.
At the SA Champs in Newlands that year, Alan Oliver became the new SA Backstroke Champion over 220 yds and the 110yds and he became the only SA swimmer to beat one of the Japs, Nakahara in the finals, with myself the second South African in the 220 and third in the 110. It was in this year that the 220 yds Backstroke was introduced for the first time. This was to be my favourite event over the following years.
In 1963, I broke my first SA record in the 220yds backstroke beating Alan but coming second after Derek Kuhlmey in the 110yds. Shortly after this I swopped coaches to go with Australian Bob Campbell who I remained with until my retirement.
In 1964 I won both backstrokes and this would repeat itself until my retirement in 1968 except that in 1967 (Jhb) I was beaten into 2nd place by Chris Sherwell from Rhodesia in the 110 Back. This was the only time I was defeated on home ground in backstroke. In 1965, ’66 and ’68 I won the best Swimmer of Year Trophy at the Championships, also winning another new event, i.e. 220 yds IM and setting the new SA record time. In 1967 (Jhb), I also won the 110yds Freestyle. My best time in the 110 yds Backstroke was 1.6sec off the then world record at 63.1 (converts to 62.5 for 100m) and I had the honour of swimming against world record holder, John Monckton of Australia in Durban to tie with him in the 110yds back.
After 1968 (Bfn), I retired from competitive swimming when we were banned from the Mexico Olympics. I had moved back to my Heimat, Windhoek and started coaching swimmers there to produce the first ever qualifiers for the SA’s from SWA with Loretta Augustyn being my first finalist who finished fourth in the 100m Breaststroke. I carried on coaching on a part-time basis for many years in Windhoek, Bloemfontein (Charl Meyer, Dougie Eager, among others) and eventually Scottburgh where work pressure eventually caused me to quit coaching.
International tours were somewhat of a challenge given SA’s pariah-status in the political world. I was selected for the first ‘rebel’ tour in 1964, together with Geoff Grylls, Jon Reen, Basil Hotz, Robbie de Villiers. Neil Oldridge, and Vernon Slovin to tour Spain and Germany and also participate in the Open British Championships at Crystal Palace. ‘Tich’ McLachlan and Tudor Lacy joined us in the UK. Due to our banned status, we swam for our clubs and not for SA although we were awarded Springbok colours.
It should be pointed out that the only warm water pool (16.66m) for us to train in was in Hillbrow, Jhb during the winter. All the tours undertaken during this era were done during our ‘off-season’ …there were no winter champs, even age-group swimming was unknown. In addition, the technology we were exposed to was generally handheld stopwatches, i.e analog….our first experience with electronic timing was in 1964 at Crystal Palace. In addition, all lanes were separated by either hosepipe with cork floats or plastic floating lanes; wave breakers were unknown to us. I donned my first Speedo in 1964. Before that we had horrible cotton costumes that created massive drag. For the ladies their cozzies dragged open on the chest! The backstroke start was risky with toes under water and not allowed over scum-channel and no grip against slippery tiles. I developed a special start to cope with this and gained half a body length on my rivals. I eventually taught Karen this start as well but she was often criticised for ‘late starts’….critics never watched her surface half a body length ahead after the so-called ‘late’ start. Our turns had to be on our backs, hands touching the wall first before ‘flipping’ but never allowed beyond 90° off the back. Underwater swimming was limited to 2 pulls (left arm right arm).
The UK press didn’t give us much chance of upsetting the apple cart at the UK Champs, but a massive surprise awaited them and the British swimmers! Of the 11 possible men’s open titles on offer, we won 9! In the 200, 400 and 1500m freestyle events we took the first 4 places with the first British swimmer coming in 5th! Geoff Grylls really nailed it with three titles. This embarrassed the British swimming federation so much that they were obliged to increase finalists from 6 to 8. As it was the 1964 Tokyo Olympics year, they were obliged to do this to select their swimmers for team relays at the championships. As it happened, the English team won the bronze at the Olympics in the 400 Medley Relay. This after we won both backstrokes, the 100m breaststroke (Basil Hotz), both ‘fly’s (Vernon in the 200 and Neil in the 100), and placed second (Jon Reen) behind world record holder (Bobby Mc Gregor) in the 100m freestyle! Great was the shock to TV viewers and political activists when we marched to the dais to receive our trophies in our green and gold Springbok gowns!
Further tours took place in the years following. The most auspicious being the following year, when the diminutive 12 year old second string backstroker, and unknown from Kimberley, the late Karen Muir, broke the open women’s world record in the 100m backstroke in Blackpool to become the youngest ever swimmer to break an open world record. This achievement still stands today, 52 years later!
Of course we were often confronted by political demonstrators calling for the banning of SA sportspersons. One such was the incident in Scotland in 1964, where Potassium Permanganate (Condi’s Crystals) was dumped into the Portobello pool we were scheduled to swim in. It eventually transpired that the objections came from Scottish Nationalists who were objecting to the English team participating against Scotland and SA! Of course the press took it that is was anti-SA.
Team to UK 1965.
Sitting: Shirley vd Poel; Alex Bulley (Manager) Anne Fairley; (??); Glenda ??
L-R: Back row: Dianne Ludorf; Basil Hotz; Harry Pearce; Brian Stewart; Robbie de Villiers; Ricky Colepepper; Merle Fluxman
Note Karen Muir was included later as a junior for experience. Glenda contracted Mononucleosis (jaundice) and couldn’t accompany team. Geoff Grylls joined the team as well after military training (if memory serves).
I was to defend my backstroke titles against the formidable of Olympic finalist Ralph Hutton from Canada beating him in the 100m Back and finishing 2nd in the 200. Again the Saffers ruled, winning the majority of British titles and sending out a message to FINA that it could not ignore SA in the world of swimming. They were eventually obliged to recognise both Karen’s records as well as those broken by Ann Fairley. I was rated 10th in the world at that stage in the two backstroke events.
In 1966 we toured France, the USA and Canada and again many world records were broken by the duo of Karen and Ann in the backstrokes while ‘old rivalries’ with Elaine Tanner (Canada), and Cathy Ferguson (USA) were continued. The experience of swimming the USA Long course Championships in Lincoln Nebraska was something else! The young Mark Spitz couldn’t do much against the then Golden Boy of Swimming, Don Schollander at that stage, but to see the Santa Clara Swim Club team field no less than 16 world beaters was something to witness. The club was stronger than any national team on the globe at that stage.
My last international tour (besides doing a Rhodesian tour in 1968, if one could call that an International) was in 1967. It was an unhappy tour with the press getting involved and spreading rumours about intimidation, unhappiness with the team management by certain factions, appointment of a special chaperone for Karen etc. etc. I had the pleasure of giving Bobby McGregor (then world record holder) a run for his money in the 110yds Freestyle clocking my best ever time of 55.3 in Coventry.
Masters swimming came many years later as did open water swimming and I started swimming again to win a number of provincial and national age group titles and break SA records achieving springbok colours again for world class times, but quite frankly never enjoyed it as much as I started enjoying water polo at masters and leagues in KZN. Health considerations have since laid me low (cancer, and acute rheumatoid- and Osteo-arthritis) making it almost impossible to swim as my major joints have basically seized up (ankles, elbows, wrists and knees). I miss the exercise and will attempt again to start swimming this year, but merely for health reasons not to compete.
My most memorable moments?
• Breaking my first SA record in the 220yds Backstroke in 1963 in Pretoria
• Being selected in 1964 for the Springbok team
• Winning 3 British Backstroke titles (2 in 1964 and one in 1965)
• Witnessing Karen Muir’s world record swim in 1965 in Blackpool
• Beating classical freestylers such as Jon Reen, Nico vd Merwe, Brian Elliot in the 100m Freestyle SA championship in 1967.
My biggest disappointments?
• Being banned from the 1964 Tokyo and 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
Regards to all
Brian Stewart
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