Kevin Richards - Triple Springbok

Kevin Richards grew up in a swimming family, with father Mally Richards completing his 60th Redhouse River Mile at age 79 in 2013, for which he was honoured by the International Open Water Hall of Fame for his achievement.

Hailing from Uitenhage, near Port Elizabeth, Kevin won Springhbok clours for swimming, triathlon and surf lifesaver. He was selected for the SA Schools water polo team in 1981. Like other former Springbok swimmers and surf lifesavers Lee McGregor, Paul Blackbeard, Graham Hill and others, he still makes headlines today - swimming the Redhouse River mile and the Bell Bouy Challange. He swims, and organises, open races races, surf ski and surfing - and probably other aquatic events as well. He even created his own brand of wetsuit - Blu Smooth. A true Waterman! 

He swam for the Uitenhage SC and matriculated from Muir College in 1981, and swam for the University of Houston, Texas. 

Springbok swimmer and triathlete, and national champion Surf lifesaver Kevin won the Redhouse River Mile at the age of 14, and went on to claim 6 titles in the event. He was also a South African national swimming champion and from 1984 -1986 held the South African record or both the 100m and 200m backstroke. Kevin was also the national surf swim champion in 1984.

He then moved into Triathlons and became the South African national champion in 1993 and represented South Africa from 1992 1993, before turning professional.

Highly regarded as a coach, Kevin coached triathlon professionally in France in 1996 before becoming the South African National Triathlon Team Coach from 1997 1998. From 1999 until 2002 he was the Head coach of the University of Port Elizabeth Swimming Club.

Kevin then spent 10 years in the UK working for a major swim/triathlon brand and was closely involved with a number of major triathlon and open-water events.

He returned to South Africa in 2012 and has become involved with swim coaching as well as the organising of events.

Today Kevin is based in Port Elizabeth and caters for masters swimmers, open-water swimmers, triathletes as well as general fitness swim training for both adults and teenagers.

Kevin's father is the remarkable Mally Richards. Mally has swum the local Redhouse River mile race since 60 times since his first race in 1947. His streak of swimming in SPAR River Mile events led to a nomination for the 2013 World Open Water Swimming Man of the Year. 

In the train on the way the SA Primary schools championships in Bloemfontein - Peter Horwitz, Hilton Rishworth, Kevin Richards, David Bird, and Dave Copeland.

  • 1974: Won S.A. Primary Schools U/10 Diving Championships.
  • 1977:S.A. Ironman Nipper Champion.
  • 1979: Won 5 mile Enduro Swim from Swartkops to Redhouse
  • 1978/79 and 1979/80: Member of Uitenhage A.S.C. team which won E.P. first league water polo champion-hip.
  • 1980& 1981: Selected for S.A. High Schools Water Polo A Team.
  • 1979-80-81-82 and 84: Won Redhouse River Mile
  • 1979: Captain of E.P. Water polo team at National Championships.
  • 1980 and 1981: Member of Uitenhage A.S.C. team which won Durban-Grosvenor Inter-Club Water Polo Tournament.
  • 1981: Coached E.P. Water Polo Team at National Championships.
  • 1981: Presented with E.P. A.S.A. Meritorious Service Award.
  • 1984: Officiated as Referee at National Champion­ships.
  • 1981: Selected for S.A. Life Saving Trials.
  • 1982: Presented with Uitenhage Rotary Club Youth Merit Award.
  • 1982: Awarded Swimming scholarship at University of Houston, U.S.A.
  • 1984: Won Victor Ludorum at S.A. Defence Force swimming Championships.
  • Held S.A. 100 m and 200 m backstroke records. Won 200 Individual medley and 400 Freestyle S.A. championships, finished 2nd in 100 m and 200 m S.A. backstroke
  • 1985: Won Durban Mainstay 3,5 km Surfswim.
  • 1987: Won Redhouse River Mile for the sixth time.
  • 1992: Finished 79th at the Huntsville ITU Triathlon World Championships | Elite Men
  • 2018: Second in wetsuite section of the Bell Buoy Challange.

The 6th S.A. Schools Inter Provincial Water Polo tournament for Under 19 Boys in 1980, first time held in Cape Town in Newlands Pool. SA Schools Team; top standing from l/t/right: B. Bowker, (Transvaal) Paul Emslie (Western Province, Oscar Chalupsky (Natal), T. Heiner (Natal), C. George (Natal) & P. Gilson (Western Province). Front standing from l/t/r. Kevin Richards (Eastern Province), C. Eldridge (Transvaal), the late Johan Terblanche (chairman), Chris Rightford (Captain-Western Province) D. Coughlan (coach-Natal), Andrew Shedlock (Natal), T. Orsmond (Eastern Province).

At the University of Houston Swimmers - with Springboks Andrew Gray and diver Glen Evans. Below are the results of the Texas/Houston dual meet on 6th February 1983. Rip Esselstyn of Texas who beat Kevin in that backstroke race would finish 8th in a World Triathlon Cup Series event in 1993 - one year after Kevin competed in the Triathlon World Championships held in England. Even though finished 79th, Kevin's time was 2 seconds faster.

1984 Springboks - with other notable swimmer including Annette Cowley and Graham Hill.
1984 South African Surf Swim Champion with Gary Brinkman (back left), Tricia Butcher, and Julian Taylor (front right).

Kevin Richards carring the reel in Kings Beach SLSC colours at SA Nipper championships.

Behind the Brand

Kevin Richards is the man behind blu_smooth (in the middle, without a cap)

A respected waterman and a former international swimmer and triathlete, Kevin grew up on the shores of the Eastern Cape and developed a love and close affinity for the warm Indian Ocean from an early age.

Competing and learning from some of the legends of ocean swimming in South Africa and going on to compete all over the world, allowed Kevin the privilege to swim in numerous oceans and open water locations worldwide. Some of the beautiful locations he has swum in include the Caribbean; the Mediterranean; the Seine river in Paris; Sydney Harbour; a lake in Sweden; a lake in Canada; and even a brief swim in the mid-Atlantic; to name just a few.

The Creation of blu_smooth Wetsuits Due to South Africa’s political isolation in the 1980’s, Kevin’s idea of developing his own wetsuit was born out of necessity. Calling on local surfing wetsuit manufacturers, he developed a “no frills”, simple, sleeveless swimming wetsuit for his open water endeavours. The wetsuits were nameless and unknown – but soon became popular with local triathletes for their simple, yet effective, design.

They may have been basic; but they did the job and Kevin went on to create the legend of ‘the fish’ in local triathlon circles.

After many years of travelling and competing, Kevin worked in the wetsuit industry abroad. After spending many years immersed in the latest wetsuit developments, he recently returned to his roots and his beloved home waters to develop blu_smooth wetsuits.

A vast amount of experience and knowledge lies behind blu_smooth wetsuits.

Uncomplicated in design, quality fabric and the best manufacturing – hardcore by nature!

“Open water swimming is a lifestyle.The freedom, the elements, the challenge! Sometimes we race in it and sometimes we swim purely for the pleasure and the stoke. Little beats the feeling of swimming in open water…and it’s there for everyone! Open water is our culture……make it yours!” 

Kevin Richards interview

Kevin was known as “the fish” in triathlon circles, with huge leads after the swim leg.

Now living in Bournemouth in the United Kingdom, he chatted to us about his triathlon career, as well as an interesting time spent as coach of the South African Olympic triathlon squad.

CRANK: Kevin, you were a “triple Springbok” with national colours for swimming, lifesaving and triathlon – could you tell us a bit about your swimming and lifesaving background?

Kevin Richards: Just to put the record straight I was a Springbok swimmer and triathlete.  Unfortunately when I made the national surf lifesaving team there was no ‘available’ international competition. As a result no ‘Bok colours’ were awarded and instead we were called the ‘Presidents Team’; or something like that.

I swam competitively since the age of eight and became a nipper at my local surf-lifesaving club at around about the same time. Surf-lifesaving was always a bit of fun away from competitive swimming; however the competition was no less intense. It was also a good excuse to not have to go to Sunday school.

I progressed all the way through the provincial swimming ranks, swam and played water-polo for South African Schools; before spending a few years at the University of Houston on a swimming scholarship. I made the Springbok swimming team soon after getting back from the States.

CRANK:  What made you switch eventually to the sport of triathlon?

KR:Two years in the army pretty much ended my competitive swimming career and I was at a bit of a loose end ‘sports-wise’ when I finished my national service. What got me interested in triathlon was watching Keith Anderson and Manfred Fuchs dueling it out in the Durban Ultra tri (1985, I think). It motivated me to give triathlon a go.

The following year armed with a new bike, some Oakley ‘Factory Pilots’ and with some very ‘dubious’ training under my belt I entered the Durban Ultra.

My memories of that event are exiting the swim nearly 6 minutes ahead; Keith and Manfred passing me on the bike; like I was ‘looking for parking’; and suffering immense pain on the run. I loved it and was hooked from then on.

CRANK:  You hail from Port Elizabeth, which seems to have produced a lot of talent over the years – from Mandy Dean to yourself to Jaco Loots and so on. Why do you think the Eastern Cape produces so many fine sportsmen and women across the board?

KR:I can’t really say for sure. Sportsmen and women from the Eastern Cape often lacked the exposure that athletes from other provinces enjoyed but they’ve always been a tough breed.  Aside from that PE is a great place to live and train.

From a triathlon perspective; Eastern Province experienced a real ‘purple patch’ in the nineties. It kicked off with Mandy Dean dominating women’s triathlon in SA. She was unbeatable and her 6th place finish at the Hawaii Ironman was pretty inspirational to what was then a small and fairly close knit PE triathlon community.

When the likes of Jaco Loots and others; as well as some talented juniors like Dave Hyam, Cameron Jones and William Beukes started to arrive on the scene; local competitions (not to mention training rides!) became pretty intense and certainly raised the level.

Nowadays, having the Ironman in PE has given the sport in the region a massive boost. It‘s amazing to see just how many locals take part. The event is awesome and to see it all happening on my old ‘stomping ground’ is great.

CRANK:  With triathlon in the late 1980s to mid 1990s having a fierce interprovincial competition (like most other sports then), do you think this spurred yourself on to great performances or were you self-motivated?

Kevin winning WP champs in 1992

KR: We were definitely driven by the whole interprovincial competition ‘thing’. The Eastern Province guys always had loads of respect for teams from Western Province, Natal, Transvaal, etc, but nothing motivated us more than the chance to beat them.

Personally, I was always very self-motivated. Like most other athletes; I set myself goals which I worked very hard to achieve.

CRANK:  You spent a lot of time in France – what made you go there? When did you first go there? Were there other South Africans over there at the time? What was it like being a South African sportsman abroad during those times – did you ever have to call yourself a Zimbabwean/Aussie/Kiwi during the sports moratorium of the time?

KR:In 1988 Andrew Dean (Mandy’s husband) told me about a ‘pro triathlon circuit’ going on in France that Mandy was going to attempt. It sounded fantastic; exotic; “out there”… and naturally it instantly appealed to me. Soon after I ‘signed up’: Michael Myers (a former Springbok triathlete) and Simon Lessing also declared themselves ‘in’.

It was an awesome time. We didn’t have a clue what we were getting into and of course couldn’t speak a word of French. Nigel Reynolds was the only other South African competing in France at the time. He was the first South African to do so.

It was tricky being a South African competing abroad during what I call the ‘dark ages’ of South African sport. Mandy, Simon and others were fortunate enough to have European passports but initially I had to keep a fairly low profile. Fortunately most race organizers assumed I was British – a misconception that worked well for me.

The only time I had any real problem was in what would have been my third season in France (1991). South Africa was about to be re-admitted back into international sporting competition and on arrival in France I announced that I would be ‘proudly competing as a South African’ from then on. Unfortunately, I ‘jumped the gun’ a bit as a few days later the ‘Inkathagate’ scandal broke back home and South Africa’s re-entry into world sport was delayed until 1992. I ended up getting banned from racing that season.

CRANK:  Were you able to support yourself financially from your earnings on the French tri circuit or did you have any alternate employment abroad or back in SA? Did you have much in the way of sponsorship or were you largely self-funded?

KR:I made very little money during my first 3 years of racing in France and always worked as a swimming teacher when back in SA.

However, as I improved as an athlete and with more experience, my earnings improved. The club I competed for was great and covered most of my expenses, but like most other ‘pro’s’ in France at the time (with the exception of an elite few) I relied on prize money.

In South Africa I was sponsored by Nic van den Bergh at Longmile. I can’t say enough about the contribution Nic made to my success; to the success of other top SA triathletes and to the sport in SA as a whole. Sadly I don’t think he’s received enough recognition for it.

CRANK:  Could you tell us about the French Iron Tour?

KR:That was something special.

I was in a South African team with Conrad Stoltz, Greg Lunderstedt and Glen Gore. I think it was in 1993 or 1994 and we were invited to take part as last minute replacements for a Czech team that had pulled out.

The event consisted of four triathlons in five days. Each race was a ‘stage’ and your overall placing depended on your time for each ‘stage’; much like in the Tour de France. The final ‘stage’ included a ride up the famous Alpe de Huez, with a 10km run at the top!!

It was a tough event but enormously fun. Most of the world’s best at the time took part and Simon Lessing totally outclassed everyone to win. Mike Pigg was a distant second. I won the Maillot Bleu or ‘swimmers jersey’ for being the overall fastest swimmer in the event.

The awards party was pretty ‘legendary’ too!

CRANK:  Could you provide with any humorous stories about your times in France?

KR:I could fill this whole page (and more) with funny stories, but to be honest I wouldn’t know where to begin.

There were some real characters amongst the South African contingent racing in France during that period. Each of them brought something unique to the experience and each will, no doubt, also have their own humorous stories to tell.

It really was a pretty ‘mad’ time in our lives and we certainly had a lot of laughs!

Maybe one day I’ll write a book.

CRANK:  You later became the coach for the SA triathlon team in the late 1990s. How did this come about and did your French connections play an important part in getting the guys/girls into races, setup with accommodation and facilities overseas? Highlights?

KR:That was an ‘interesting’ experience.

In 1998 Triathlon South Africa hatched a great plan to qualify as many triathletes as possible for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, This involved selecting a national team and getting them to a number of qualifying events around the world.

My job as ‘coach’ was to accompany them, monitor them, take care of logistics and also to set up a training base in France. From there they could train unhindered as well as have easy access to a number of events in Europe. This all worked out well and we were based in a beautiful town called Cahors, in South West France, an area which I had strong connections with.

The team had access to fantastic cycling routes, great running routes, a 25 meter pool and on top of it all we had a fairly decent budget. Overall they performed very well. They all worked extremely hard and the results for year one were very encouraging.

Unfortunately; to the massive disappointment of everyone involved; year two never materialized.

I won’t go into any detail other than to say that what essentially killed it off (and in my opinion set South African triathlon back a good few years) was bullshit politics, petty jealousy, and severe disrespect to the sponsor from people with personal agendas and no grasp of what was trying to be achieved.

Enough said!

CRANK:  What are you up to now?

KR:Most of my spare time nowadays is taken up by my two sons and their activities. I don’t cycle or run much anymore, but still enjoy swimming and surfing. We’re fortunate enough to live right near the beach which at times has some pretty decent surf and is great for long sea swims.

Because of my job I’m still involved with triathlons and go to a lot of races.

Ironically, I’m no longer the skinny bloke racing for his dinner…I’m now the ‘fatcat’ eating a free lunch in the sponsors tent!

Interview courtesy Jason Bailey

Kevin Richards - Musings of a 'Waterman.'

 “It is someone to whom the ocean is central to life,” responded Kevin Richards when asked for his definition of the term 'Waterman'

This description certainly befits Richards, to whom the ocean and watersports in general have been a great influence on his lifestyle since his formative years as a nipper.

Now residing in Bournemouth, England, former Springbok swimmer and triathlete Richards kindly agreed to an interview about adjusting to life after elite sport, SA beach culture and the benefits of watersports for youngsters.

 Nature Gym: As an elite sportsman, what influenced your decision to retire from top-level competition? Was it an easy decision?

 Kevin Richards: I don’t think it’s ever an easy decision for any sportsman to retire, when they have been dedicated to a sport for a long time.

For me it was a combination of factors that influenced my decision to retire.

By 1995, sponsorships were largely drying up, making travelling and competing very expensive, but I was also starting to quietly question my commitment to top level racing.

I was becoming too content, for example, when racing in Europe; to comfortably finish ‘in the money’ rather than be bothered about ‘laying it all on the line’ and going for the win.

Something else also happened in ’95 which further convinced me that perhaps it was time to quit. In an effort to try and re-ignite my ‘desire’ to win I targeted SA Champs held that year in Mossel Bay as a ‘must win’ race. I threw everything at preparing for that race and in the month leading up to the race I was smashing personal bests in both the pool and on the road. My preparations could not have gone better! Then a couple of days before the race I developed a sore throat. I tried my best to ignore it and hide it from everybody, but by the time I lined up for the start, I felt like sh*t.

For the first time in my career I struggled to shake the pack on the swim and when my handle bars broke early on in the bike leg.....I kind of felt like ‘someone’ was sending me a message!

It was hard to come to terms with at first.

I remember Raynard Tissink making a comment to me at the prize-giving..something about it being time for the ‘new-generation’. As muchas I didn’t appreciate his comment at the time...turned out he was right. 

NG: Upon retirement, did you have any immediate plans of what you were going
to do with your life? How hard was it to adjust?

KR: I had no immediate plans. Fortunately for me; stepping up to Ironman racing wasn’t the career option back then as it is now because I would probably have been tempted and would have been crap at it.

Instead, I decided to get as far away from the sport as possible and joined up as crew on a yacht. I spent 5 months first crossing the Atlantic and then cruising the Carribean islands. It was one of my better decisions.

Adjusting to retirement from triathlon wasn’t too hard. Adjusting to retirement from swimming some years before had been weird.

When you’re at the top of your game; life is easy; everyone is your ‘mate’ and people fall over themselves to do things for you. When you retire and no longer make headlines; you quickly go from ‘hero to zero’. Most of your so-called ‘mates’ disappear (or move onto the next hot-shot) and the adoration evaporates. You are left with something of a vacumn in your life.

I was a lot younger when I quit top level swimming and I found that experience to be tough. However, I was ready for it when I quit triathlon.

 NG: Many top athletes become complete "couch-potatoes" after retirement. Did you stay fairly active or take a complete break from all exercise?

 KR: Becoming a ‘couch-potato’ was never really an option. I was always active outside of swimming and triathlon anyway. Surfing is my passion and I spent a lot of time since retirement chasing waves all over the country and all over the world.

I still surf as often as I can now and also paddle a surf-ski and do open-water swims. Exercise for me now is way less regimented and forms part of my lifestyle. I’m always doing some form of exercise, but what it is, is usually dependent on sea conditions!

 NG: It is clear that you have a true love for the sea and water sports. Could you give the reader an insight into your formative years as part of the 1980s South African beach culture?

 KR: Yes, I have to be in or near the ocean as often as possible. Living away from it (I tried it once!) is simply not an option for me.

My involvement with the sea began at around 8 years of age when my older brother got me into surfing. I also joined Kings Beach Surf-lifesaving club as a nipper at the same age. The sheer enjoyment I got from being in the sea combined with an ability to swim pretty well, created an environment I could excel in.

The beach culture of the late seventies and the eighties was ‘insane’. Surf-lifesaving was a highly competitive environment populated by some of the most ‘hard-nosed’ competitors I ever had the privilege of competing against. Guys like Graham Hill, Julian Taylor (to name just two!) were not only top South African swimmers, but were also totally awesome surf swimmers. My memories of some national events are of radical surf-conditions, sharks, ‘rough and tumble’ surf swim starts; ‘gut wrenching’ finishes...and of course legendary after-parties!

Surfing, on the other hand, was my escape from the competitive world. If I wasn’t swimming, or doing surf-lifesaving, I was surfing. I had different mates that I surfed with and I never got into the whole competitive surfing thing. It was all about hours and hours of fun.

My swimming coach at the time wasn’t a fan of me spending too much time surfing..his theory was that it would ruin my stroke. He meant well; but I have no doubt that all the hours I spent paddling my surfboard had an enormous positive effect on my fitness and my feel for the water.

 NG: What is your definition of a "Waterman"?

 KR: A ‘waterman’ is someone to whom the ocean is central to life. Someone who actively pursues his passions both on and in the water and through time and through much trial and error excels in that environment.

He is not necessarily a champion at any one ocean sport, but is highly competent at a number of ocean endeavours. A waterman has a close association with the ocean; understands it moods; it’s ways; shows it respect and is concerned with it’s preservation.

The same applies to “Waterwoman”.

 NG: Tell us about some of the legendary "Watermen" you have come into contact with over the years.

 KR: I’ve met a few over the years. Julian Taylor (whom I mentioned earlier) is one that springs to mind and although I haven’t seen him for some time now, he always was a very competent waterman in my opinion. Recently he swam 20km’s along the Natal South Coast to raise money for charity...think about that!

I also knew a surf-lifesaver from East London called Jonny Woods. He was quite a bit older than me and built like the proverbial “brick sh*thouse”.

I’d heard of his exploits long before I first met him. Stories of him regularly spear-fishing alone off the 'sharky' coast around East London were legendary, but most legendary of all was the story of him paddling alone from Port Elizabeth to East London on a surf-ski. He paved the way for what is now considered to be the toughest surf-ski race in the world; the Southern Shamaal, held over the same route he paddled....unaided!

Jonny Woods was a Springbok lifesaver with a fearsome reputation. I recall him as a humble man of few words. I’ll never forget when I first made the Eastern Province Surf-Lifesaving team at the age of 14. Jonny was our team captain that year and the team talk he gave us prior to SA Interprovincials in Cape Town has stuck with me ever since:....”don’t worry about those other ‘fancy pants’ teams. Focus on what you have to do; go like hell and if anyone tries to ‘moer’ you out of the way...’moer’ them back”!

 NG: Would you say that surf-lifesaving is an ideal sports "grounding" for youngsters?

 KR: For sure. All kids are, of course, different and surf-lifesaving might not be to everyone’s liking. However, apart from the obvious physical benefits; it teaches youngsters about the ocean; it’s competitive and makes kids more confident in the sea. Above all that it’s great fun. 

NG: What advice would you give to parents who want their kids to be active?

 KR: Find something the kid enjoys. To do this you’re probably going to have to try a number of different sports.

Once they have found something they enjoy and they feel they are relatively good at; actively show an interest and encourage them. Perhaps get them into group/club where they can meet and make friends with kids with similar interests.

There will be times when their enthusiasm will wane. That’s totally normal for kids; encourage them through these times. NEVER push them too hard.....and don’t let the coaches do so either!

NG: Being a UK resident, what is the surfing scene like over there?

KR: Surfing is extremely popular in the UK.

We’re fortunate to live right by the beach in front of a decent little beach-break. It’s perfect for my kids, who both surf, and provides just enough to keep me going. We also often travel to Devon and Cornwall where there are a lot of good quality surf breaks.

Unfortunately, as in most countries, the best waves occur in winter and winter in the UK gets seriously chilly! However, you do eventually get used to surfing in a lot of rubber!

Getting abroad from the UK is relatively easy too and we have some good, ‘sunny’, surf options a short flight away....we also spend every Easter in Jeffreys Bay, which is simply my favourite place on earth.

Race Director at the Kromme Descent - 2018.