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Swimming has been an Olympic sport since 1896, and the current program includes events from 50 m to 1500 m in length, across all four main strokes. Open water racing and marathon swimming events are held over longer distances, in various bodies of water. The sport is governed internationally by the Fédération Internationale de Natation (FINA) founded in 1908. The South African Amateur Swimming Union joined in 1909.

Recreational swimming takes place in any suitable body of water. Today "wild swimming" involves rivers, dams, quarries, and the oceans and tidal pools.

South Africa boasts a 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 Chad le Clos. 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.

Although water carnivals were often held in a flooded dry dock, open water was the traditional location for swimming - the sea, rivers and dams. In South Africa Henry Hooper swimming to Robben Island in 1908, while the  Seals Swimming Club of Pietermaritzburg hosts the annual Midmar Mile, which is the world's largest open water mile race. Mile races were a feature of 19th century swimming, with the 1924 Redhouse River Mile in Port Elizabeth being the oldest extant event in South Africa. Today open water swimming is also an Olympic event.

Swimming and water polo continue to thrive in both primary and high schools, with many schools boasting a pool, or even two pools where water polo is a popular sports for boys and girls.

The first South African Masters swimming nationals were held in 1985.

  • 1. FINA competitive racing

    The Federación Internacional de Natación - FINA - is the international governing body for competitive aquatics sports, including swimming and open-water swimming.

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  • 2. Open Water Racing

    Open water racing dates from the 19th century when the British colonists imported gambling to the Cape. Money was bet on races and endurance feats, like swimming long distances, including the Robben Island crossing by Henry Hooper in 1909 and the 1926 race from the Island, won by Peggy Duncan.

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  • 3. Long Distance Marathon swimming

    Long distance, or marathon, swimming is about the swimmer overcoming the challenge presented by a body of water such as crossing Table Bay from Robben Island. Other famous long distance marathon swims include the Catalina island, English Channel, Straights of Gibraltar and Alcatraz Island.

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  • 4. Swimming clubs

    The British brought organised aquatic sports to South Africa in the 1800's. The earliest swimming clubs were established in Port Elizabeth, Cape Town, Durban and Pietermaritzburg. 

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  • 5. Schools swimming

    Sports are an important part of school life in South Africa. Highly competitive exchanges have characterised the relationships between schools, which also expand into provincial level inter-schools competitions. National schools teams have sometimes been selected and awarded colours featuring a water buck. 

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  • 6. University swimming

    University sports have always been a big part of student life at South African universities. There was an annual 'inter-varsity', usually held at the campus of one of the competining institutions, and varsity teams often toured. Protea Colours were awarded to teams representing South African universities.

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  • 7. Learn to Swim

    Traditionaly swimming lessons were part of club activities, or as a revenue-generating element of professional coaches swimming squads. Organised commercial Learn to Swim programes are now a feature of South African swimming, as numerous swim schools have been set up in communties across the country. 

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  • 8. Disabled swimming

    Competitive swimming for disabled swimmers has been a part of South African swimming for many years. At the 1972 Paralympic Games in Germany South Africa won 8 gold medals, including a world record by Willie Bosch. More recently disabled champions like Natalie du Toit and Kevin Paul have brought Paralympic swimming into the mainstream of swimming in South Africa. 

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  • 9. Age group swimming

    Age Group swimming was initaited in the United States in the early 1960's and South Africa has had it's own version of the competiton.

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  • 10. Masters swimming

    Masters Swimming started in South Africa during the 1980's, with the first national masters championships held in at Durban 1985. Since then South African swimmers have set numerous masters world records.

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Swimming is practiced in various competitive and non-competitive formats. Competitive races are held in 25m and 50m pools, while races are also swum in open water locations like the Midmar Dam and the Sundays River. Today there is a 10km open water Olympic swimming event. 

Swimmers have also braved the waters to complete 'marathon' swims - Robben Island, Cape Point, False Bay, the Orange river, Lake Kariba, and more. These are usually solo events, although marathon races have been held across the English Channel and Table Bay.

South Africa sent George Godfrey of Natal to compete as the first Springbok swimmer at the Olympic Games held in Stockholm in 1912. The original national governing body, known as the South African Amateur Swimming Union (SAASU), which was disbanded in 1992, and replaced by an organization known as Swimming South Africa. While SAASU was essentially an amateur organization of ex-swimmers and swimming parents, Swim SA is run by appointees of the national governing political party. 

Despite the international ban of South African competitors from 1963 to 1991, swimming remained part of the culture, and swimmers from southern Africa continued to compete against the rest of the world, while benefitting from the tours by overseas teams and individuals. With South Africans barred from the 1964 Olympic Games, SAASU invited the gold and silver medalists of the women's 100m backstroke, American Cathy Ferguson and Kiki Caron of France, to compete against local girls and world record holders Karen Muir and Ann Fairlie where they were roundly beaten! During the Golden Era of South African swimming Karen and Ann competed in Europe and north America, setting new world records, while the Springbok men won 9 out of 11 titles at the British national championships in 1964. 

Many local swimmers had taken up scholarships at American universities since the 1950's, and in 1976 University of Alabama swimmer Jonty Skinner, of East London, took more than half a second of the world record - barely 6 weeks after it had been set by American Jim Montgomery when Montgomery won the Olympic gold medal in Montreal. Another east Cape swimmer Peter Williams also set a world record in 1988, while a student at the University of Nebraska. Neither swimmers were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games. After re-admission Penny Heyns on Natal won double gold at the 1996 Olympics, and was twice named International swimmer of the Year. Many world records have been set by South Africans - and Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe, with Chad le Clos being the most recent international star. 

Pools and Places where swimming traditionally took place included dams, rivers and the sea, but most towns had a municipal swimming pool, many of which still exist today. Due to changed priorities after 1994 many municipal swimming pools have become dead pools, due to lack of maintenance.

Click on the Map to see dead pools, indicated by black dots.

Schools in southern Africa -inluding Rhodesia and South West Africa - had an annual national schools championships, at both Primary and Senior schools levels. SA Senior Schools teams sometimes even touring overseas, with competitors being awarded Waterbuck colours. Many schools building pools and building a strong culture of competitive swimming.

Intervaristy sport in South Africa always created intense rivalry - like the annual Stellenbosch vs UCT rugby match. Intervaristy swimming also had an annual national event, and varisty teams toured neighbouring states Rhodesia and Mozambique on many occations. An annual club swimming championships was held at the Old Eds club in Johannesburg during the 1970's. 

Coaches were generally independent professionals with their pools and squads, where swimmers chose which clubs to join, and some schools employed such coaches to enhance their teams performances. Some were recruited overseas by Department of Sport and Recreation, while others came independently, bringing international knowledge of the sport to southern Africa. 

Click here to read more about the history of swimming, and here to see the results of the first 100 years of South African national aquatic championships.