Aquatic Sports in South Africa

This history of aquatic sports in South Africa includes all the FINA disciplines of swimming, water polo, synchronized swimming, as well as lifesaving and bi/triathlons, where swimmers also participated in those sports. The main focus is on swimming, mainly due to the availability of material.

While the focus of the site if on swimming, 19th-century aquatic carnivals always included exhibitions of diving and ornamental or artistic swimming. The Carnivals were often commercial ventures, and organizing clubs always made an effort to raise money. The main drawcard events were water polo matches - for men only. Women and Juniors were included in the other activities. 

Many people - competitors and administrators - were active in more than one of these. Many swimmers also competed in triathlons, lifesaving and water polo. Triple Springbok Paul Blackbeard has national colours in swimming as well as both forms of lifesaving, while Kevin Richards had colours for swimming, surf lifesaving and triathlon, and Olympic medalist Marianne Kriel also has colours lifesaving and biathlon.

Peggy Duncan was the first South African to swim the English Channel. 


South Africa boasts a very successful history in international swimming - from Jenny Maakal's bronze medal at the 1932 Olympic Games to Joan Harrison's gold medal at the 1952 Helsinki Olympic Games and Tatjana Schoenmaker winning silver at the 2019 World Championships.

The history of competitive swimming in South Africa includes the participation of the Rhodesian ASA Swimming Association, who competed at nationals from 1920 to 1980, and South-West Africa until that country became Namibia in 1990.


In 1930 Oonagh Whitsitt of Natal won a gold medal at the Empire Games in Hamilton, Canada, which is the only major diving medal ever won by a South African.

Diving has played a part of aquatic sports events since the early days of swimming carnivals. In Sweden, where gymnasts dragged their equipment to the beach held their events over water, creating the sport of "fancy" diving - which was introduced in Britain by the Swedes in the late 1890's. Before that, diving was known as "plunging", where swimmers tried to get most distance from a pool-side start.  

The story of diving in South Africa is largely the story of Rhodesian diving, as they dominated the sport at nationals for many years.

Synchronised Swimming

In South Africa the sport first featured at the Pretoria nationals in 1970, after a national Board of control was established by SAASU in 1968. Natal were early adopters of the sport, which was reflected in their dominance for the next decade.

The first two Synchro Springboks were Aileen Martin and Gillian Buck, who swam at the 1972 Canadian championships.

Water Polo

Water polo is enjoying a revival in some South African schools today.  Although blighted by the quota system enforced on all South African sport, water polo is experiencing a veritable explosion of interest, with girls and boys playing in expanded local, national and international leagues. Some schools have up to 7 or more teams, and a number of national tournaments are held annually, and in December 2013 East London hosted the 39th national inter-provincial high schools tournament, featuring under 13 to under 19 teams. Teams from Zimbabwe are also competing, with Chisipite BHS recently building a new 25m pool.

It has not always been like this.  Water polo was the main activity of 19th century "swimming" clubs based in the Cape and port Elizabeth, where men (only) played league games, and also participated in the odd swimming race. Nationals was "Currie Cup" - the trophy awarded to the top water polo province at the annual championships, where swimmers also featured, and many polo players swam in some of the races. Transvaal (Gauteng) retained possession of the coveted Currie Cup trophy at the King’s Park Aquatic Centre in Durban on 14th April 2012.

Life Saving 

Life saving sport is the only sport in the world that has a humanitarian purpose: to train and certify life savers, and it played an important part in the development of competitive swimming. The competitive aspect of the sport involves pool and surf lifesaving, although in South Africa there is little cross-over between the two disciplines, as surf lifesaving is run by voluntary clubs, while non-competitive "professional" lifeguards are employed by municipalities.

There are numerous articles related to lifesaving in the newspapers included on this website,  often included with swimming reports.

Since 1993 the International Life Saving Federation has governed the combined surf and pool activities, although lifesaving has never been governed by SAASU or FINA. Every two years the International Life Saving Federation organizes the Lifesaving World Championships, called Rescue Series.

In South Africa the surf lifesaving clubs continue to patrol the beaches and have surf and beach events, while the pool lifesavers have their own in the pool. Durban Surf Lifesaving club have twice won the world chapionships!


Springbok swimmers Kevin Richards and Marianne Kriel have also competed for their country in bi- and triathlons, while international stars like Simon Lessing, Paula Newby-Fraser and Eastern Province backstroke swimmer Mandy Dean won Springbok colours for triathlon, and another former EP swimmer - Libby Burrel - is the Canadian national coach. Biarthle is a popular spot in the Afrikaans community. The 2017 World Championships were held in Viveiro (ESP), where South Africa emerged with an exceptional 42 gold medals across all categories.