Paul Blackbeard

An interview with Thys Lombard at Cape Town, September 2020.

Thys Lombard
Paul, fantastic to sit with you here in South Africa. I remember my sister coming back from Currie Cup, back in the 70s, mentioning a guy called Paul Blackbeard, and you became one of my heroes. It's an honour to have you here. Where did it all begin? Swimming - is it part of the family?

Paul Blackbeard
Not really, actually. I actually started as a boxer. Yeah, strange. Born in Zambia and, and I wasn't doing much. I won a little trophy, as you both finished an event, you both won a trophy, but I wasn't doing particularly well, so my dad said: Let's try another sport. Let's try diving. I used to dive at school.

Thys Lombard
Okay, so where was school? In Zambia still?

Paul Blackbeard
In Zambia. My dad was down in King William's Town. He did some diving there. So he said: But you want to learn to swim before you start diving. So I started swimming - in Zambia.

Thys Lombard
At what age was that?

Paul Blackbeard
About eight years old. With a Mr. Watson. He was the pool supervisor but he's also the coach, and I still give him credit for a lot of my stroke. He was a fanatic about, you know, 'stroke the black cat', and little simple things that I kind of still use now as techniques and tools to kind of get my stroke back again. So I learned with Mr.Wattie Watson, and swam for Zambia, in the junior team. And then we left Zambia when I was about 11, and came down to South Africa, joined Queens Park in Durban. At the same time when we came down, one of the friends from school, his mother had just helped an Australian coach, move from Port Elizabeth to Durban. She was helping him set up. And said to him: Do you have any other friends? and I was introduced as a friend and kind of went off training with a guy called Terry Gulliver. And Terry was probably the guy who took me to the next level. I give him a lot of credit for that.

And it was very frustrating. In I think it was, in 1973 Terry left South Africa right with frustrations, that, you know, he could never produce international swimmers. So I lost, I think, a good coach then.

Thys Lombard
Yes. So was it part of the isolation years already, that frustrated him?

So did he move to the States?

Paul Blackbeard
Yeah. As a coach he wanted to achieve more., and he felt he couldn't. I was in matric in 1974 and had a number of scholarship offers. Really ahead for you, but a number of the scholarship offers to states, and was ready to go and study overseas. I think he also felt that he could, you know if he couldn't follow me there what is he going to do the rest of swimmers, so.

No, he went back to Australia. And, and my, my father got very sick, about six weeks before I was going to go. In fact, I accepted a scholarship, with Doc Counsilman, who was at the time was the, he was the top American coach, and it was a great scholarship. But six weeks before I was going go my dad could very sick. And I decided not to go, to stay, and I think it was the right decision. But I didn't realize that you lose your eligibility after four years. I thought I could maybe go back in four years' time. I'd study in South Africa first and go do some year post studies. But anyway, that was another story.

Thys Lombard
So, after school, was it university?

Paul Blackbeard
Yes, and went to university went to Natal University, did a BComm. I did that part-time, and then I did my National Service in the police and got transferred back to Durban. national, because one of the guys I swam with, his dad was the recruitment officer for the South African Police, and he said: Look come and join us and we can get you transferred back in, you can keep training

Thys Lombard
So you keep your training regime, you could keep it up?

Paul Blackbeard
Yep yeah. In fact, I remember in Police College, very kindly being allowed to train in the evenings of this beautiful 50-meter pool in Pretoria. They put the lights on at night, nobody else, I was the only one training and everyone else had study time, I was the only allowed to go training. Very spoilt!

Thys Lombard
So swimming has been very kind to you? It's hard work but it's been kind to you?

Paul Blackbeard
In fact, in the Police, I was the Police Sportsman of the Year, and at the same table was Naas Botha.

Thys Lombard
I remember, he was at the Police College as well.

Paul Blackbeard
So it was obvious Naas was going to win it. And I actually won the Police Sportsman of the Year award.

Thys Lombard
That's incredible! Against a legend of South African sport. Paul so when was the first time that you realize that you had quite a special talent? Because I mean, when you start swimming and you never, you know, we aim to become Springboks, all South Africans, once they get their rights to walk around and swim around and whatever we think of becoming Springboks. When was it something that you realized was possible?

Paul Blackbeard
It was probably in my matric year, 1974, because I was lucky enough to get Springbok colours in three sports, in the same year.

Thys Lombard
Wow, the other two being water polo and surf lifesaving?

Paul Blackbeard
No, the other two being still water lifesaving and surf lifesaving.

Thys Lombard
You never played water polo?

Paul Blackbeard
I played a bit of polo, but not at that level. And also the shoulder would have been a problem.

Thys Lombard
I competed against you in the surf lifesaving, but we'll get back to that later. Also a fantastic sport, surf lifesaving. The Natal boys dominated for so many years.

Paul Blackbeard
And the history I've got with those teams, still great friends. I mean that's the beauty of sport. They're friends for life.

Thys Lombard
So, obviously, if you became a Springbok in your matric year you must have been able to swim in Currie Cup in years earlier than your matric year?

Paul Blackbeard
72 was my first one.

Thys Lombard
And for what events you qualify?

Paul Blackbeard
400 freestyle was my first African record so that was my, my first kind of event.

Thys Lombard
Can you remember it who's record you broke?

Paul Blackbeard
Unfortunately, not.

Thys Lombard
Because Greg Carswellremembers breaking your record. The other day I spoke to him he said the first South African he record was one of yours.

Paul Blackbeard
I was actually just trying to get hold of Greg on this trip, but he was off to Europe.

Thys Lombard
And speaking about guys like Greg Carswell, what other names do you remember from your swimming years? I was a bit younger, but there were some legends swimming in your era?

Paul Blackbeard
This is where you need to get a hold of Linda, my wife. I'm shocking with memory and names, and I'll be a disservice to them all.

Thys Lombard
Blame the chlorine! Guys like Dougie Eager? A name that pops up to me is Jonty Skinner?

Paul Blackbeard
I'll just go back to Dougie for a moment. I always remember swimming medley against Dougie, where he had such a powerful breaststroke, and that is my worst stroke. My worst. I would do a beautiful butterfly, great backstroke, he'd catch me and sometimes pass me on the breaststroke. And then, of course, I'd come back on the freestyle, and the crowd ... It was just a great event!

Thys Lombard
I mean I grew up watching it, you guys compete. And it was, it was fascinating

Paul Blackbeard
And as a competitor, it was lovely to have that kind of event as well. The crowd, and you're loving it.

Thys Lombard
Paul, tell me, training, I mean, obviously the sport has become professional and in your days it was not a professional sport, although I think you work as hard as the professional, I don't think it could work harder?

Paul Blackbeard
I wanted to work on the beaches and when I finished my schooling, make some pocket money, and the rules then, if you went to the beach for more than six weeks you're using your sport as a profession, and you couldn't do it. So six weeks was the maximum you could do it. That's how tight they were on anti-professionalism.

Thys Lombard
And you're not even talking about earning five rand or ten rand or anything?

Paul Blackbeard
No sponsorship, no.

Thys Lombard
Paul, the years that you swim and you are at the pinnacle of your sport. We'll get back to what you achieving now as year 58 year old as well. I think you're still at the pinnacle of what you do, which probably boils back to discipline and we'll get back to that. But when you were at your best, swimming your best times and not allowed to compete in the Olympics. I mean, that must have hurt real bad?

Paul Blackbeard
It was hard. It was hard. I mean, but you know, if you've never had it you kind of don't know what you've missed. And I would like to have done it. No lie about it. But we didn't. And in fact, it was one of the reasons that I actually, when South Africa got back into the Olympics, then made a swimming comeback.

Thys Lombard
This was in '92, Baecelona?

You were thinking of making a comeback, at the age of 34?

Paul Blackbeard
Yeah, I actually got back into the water and got fit again. I actually won the Natal trophy, which I had previously won 21 years before. So there was a lovely comeback.

Thys Lombard
A couple of names in between? Guys like Graham Hill, I'm sure.

Paul Blackbeard
Yeah, yeah. And I think there's a guy called Mike Bolstridge who won it one for six years in a row. And then I won it for 10 years in a row after that, so was between us we've got 16 years on that trophy.

Thys Lombard
That's incredible.

Paul Blackbeard
Because I retired and then come back.

Thys Lombard
So you came back, did you make the qualifying times?

Paul Blackbeard
Made it, and in fact, got into the finals for the qualifying races, but I think I came third in that particular hundred butterfly.

Unknown Speaker
Okay.

Thys Lombard
Okay. Did you make the qualifying times for the Olympics?

Paul Blackbeard
They didn't have qualifying times, they just selected a team. Yeah.

Unknown Speaker
Yeah.

Thys Lombard
Okay and did you stop then? Putting in all the hard work, getting back to fitness levels?

Paul Blackbeard
Sort of, to an extent. There was a lifesaving trip at the same time, going to Australia. I think also tried for that and again just missed that one. But for me, it was more the Olympics.

Thys Lombard
You wanted to compete in the Olympics?

Paul Blackbeard
For my honeymoon, I took my wife to the '84 Olympics, Los Angeles. Just to go and be part of it.

Thys Lombard
Mark Spitz when did he..

Paul Blackbeard
That was '72. Munich.

Thys Lombard
Munich, right,

Paul Blackbeard
So I went to '84, just to watch it and of course the experience and be part of it.

Thys Lombard
Speaking of the Olympics, this is an Olympic year. Your times, when you were at your best? I remember when we swam, we got the tops of the international swimmers, how did your time rate?

Paul Blackbeard
In the 400 individual medley, I was ranked 14th in the world. That was probably the highest, but there were a number in the top 20. But, but it was, you know, like anything, if you've got competition next to you, you always do better, you get pulled forward.

Thys Lombard
I think, that at a certain level, anyone can win, it's on the night. So that's one of your big regrets, not being able to compete in the Olympics?

Paul Blackbeard
Regrets, but at the same time, you know, life. I wouldn't have been my wife, you know, things would have been so different.

Thys Lombard
Exactly, the Olympics only last for one year, and you're still married to your beautiful wife. I think that's a great outlook on life. Getting back to your swimming. You still very fit. You're now 58. I saw you earlier on this year, at the Sanlam Cape Mile and I actually watched and you came out, I think, fourth overall in the elite group, And just behind the guys. But what impressed me even more, in the Midmar Mile, you swim under 20 minutes for a mile. How do you do that? How do you train, at the age of, where you are now?

Paul Blackbeard
The one thing that I have learned, is that you don't have to train as hard as we used to train, but it's consistency. Training for three to four times a week, but regularly, doing good sessions and listening to your body a lot more than you used to. I mean, I always knew my body.

Thys Lombard
When you really listen to your body, do you also listen to what your body wants as fuel? Is that important?

Paul Blackbeard
Yeah, very much so.

Thys Lombard
Have you always been a healthy eater?

Paul Blackbeard
You know, when we train as hard as we used to when we're younger, I would eat anything, because you were just hungry all the time.

Thys Lombard
It probably now wasn't very scientific then?

Paul Blackbeard
No, just as much just to get. J

Thys Lombard
Just going back to the, to the distances you guys did with training at the peak of your, your fitness. What type of training sessions, three sessions per day?

Paul Blackbeard
Hell week we did 20 kilometers in a day, two sessions. It was incredible. 13 times a week we were training, 4 to 5 hours a day.

Thys Lombard
Are you good early in the morning?

Paul Blackbeard
You got used to it. Just becomes part of your routine. You get up, you've got your clothes organized, and off you go.

Thys Lombard
When did you guys leave South Africa, because you're now living in Australia? Tell us a bit about that?

Paul Blackbeard
We left in 94, on a one year contract originally with my company. That was in Sweden, and then we went off to London for five years after that, and that then rolled into three years in Italy.

Thys Lombard
In those years - did you swim?

Paul Blackbeard
I joined the Master's clubs.

Thys Lombard
So you've always been a competitive swimmer?

Paul Blackbeard
I started, when I, when I was 25, I actually started the Master's organization in South Africa. A guy called Frank Waterman, he was a great sprinter in his day, had been on to me for years about let's start this Master's thing. Because he'd heard about it in America. That's all, it was only going in America at that stage. And so when I turned 25, I thought, let's do it.

Thys Lombard
You were still in Durban?

Paul Blackbeard
Exactly. In fact, we down to North Beach, where the water polo guys and lifesaving guys were, and we called the guys up, up and said we wanted to start this thing. We need a quorum to start it, won't you all come up and join us in the clubhouse and we had a quorum and formed the organization.

Thys Lombard
I remember you in the Pirates costume, the black and white costume, competing against the Durban Surf boys, the black costumes and red caps, where the Chalupski's are. I mean, fond memories of surf lifesaving?

Paul Blackbeard
You know, getting back to the international thing, the lifesaving and surf lifesaving gave me those things. The lifesaving, I actually got world records out of that. Surf lifesaving gold medals and international competition, because we couldn't get that in the swimming, we were banned by FINA, but in lifesaving, we were still allowed to compete.

Thys Lombard
Guys like Julian Taylor, I mean legendary guys and all good, good mates of yours. Do you still have contact with some of your lifesaving buddies?

Paul Blackbeard
Definitely.

Thys Lombard
And when you swim at the Midmar this year, I saw you got a picture taken with you and Chad le Clos. Do you follow the South African swimming even though you are based in Australia?

Paul Blackbeard
That was one of my, my best pictures ever. When he actually walked up to me and he said: Do you mind if we have a picture taken together? And I went - me? You're my hero!

Thys Lombard
He's a very humble guy, and very approachable. And I think that you know that you never know when that one kind word is going to inspire the next Chad le Clos, so, awesome.

Paul Blackbeard
One of the things about swimming, you know, I used to hear about inspiring people but not as much. I'm hearing it so much now that I'm older, also from younger swimmers, or people who actually gave up swimming and come back into it again. And they're talking about the inspiration. And I think you need it.

Thys Lombard
I think mentorship is enormous.

Paul Blackbeard
That's the value I can give back a lot more.

Thys Lombard
So who were your mentors when you grew up?

Paul Blackbeard
A guy called Lee McGregor.

Thys Lombard
I know Lee very, he got me into surf lifesaving. McGregor's dad. He was an incredible competitor. In my mind, I have never seen anybody who takes winning as seriously as Lee. I a good way!

Paul Blackbeard
Yes, totally.

Thys Lombard
He taught me first is first and second is nothing. Ok, so Lee McGregor.

Paul Blackbeard
He was probably one of my big ones. And then, I think, going back to the coach. Terry Gulliver. What Terry was so good at was getting you to believe that you could do more than you could do. So having a mentor was important, but having that belief in your own ability. He was so powerful, at getting your mind. Because, and as I've got older as well now realizing how powerful that mind is, you know, visualization stuff that we do nowadays, he was doing that back in the 70s with us, and physically also, he was helping us. We would sit down, lie down, and we'd talk it through 50 or 60 times until we've done the race. And that stuff is so powerful.

Thys Lombard
Someone who features quite strongly in the South African Olympic setup, these days is a guy called Graham Hill. I competed against Graham, but you must remember Graham as a young kid growing up, swimming?

Paul Blackbeard
I was Graham's hero, and I still remember the photograph in Port Elizabeth who his parents came up to me and said: Would you mind if Graham had a picture taken with you? And we had pictures from there and, and went forward and of course now.

Thys Lombard
Graham was is untouchable! Born in exactly the same year, when Graham was in the race, we were swimming for second and third place.

Paul Blackbeard
And coaching now as well.

Thys Lombard
He's a good coach as well. I think he's a good mentor to a lot of these young swimmers. South African swimming, do you still follow it, even though you're based in Australia? It seems like you're quite clued up with the South Africans?

Paul Blackbeard
I know the names and follow it but probably not as close as I'd like to. I'm probably looking more at Australian swimmers nowadays which are looking very powerful for the Olympics this year,

Thys Lombard
They have a massive squad, I think, 36 people. You're not involved at all in any coaching?

Paul Blackbeard
No, a little bit in the Masters.

Thys Lombard
Anybody in your family swimmers?

Paul Blackbeard
My kids got some but they are lazy to train. And it takes time, and so they play tennis, they do other sports.

Thys Lombard
I saw on Facebook, it was a young Australian guy, when you left South Africa, in March after the Midmar, you were doing a long-distance swim with him. It looks like you're quite a mentor to this little swimmer.

Paul Blackbeard
Little Raoul, yes. He's 14 years old, right, and, and we were swimming in one of the open water races and started chatting to him afterward and we end up doing racing together. In fact, this particular race, Channel of the Champion race.

Thys Lombard
I saw that, I saw the pictures. And how did you swim in that race? Did you swim with him?

Paul Blackbeard
Yeah, we swam together. It's a 20 kilometer race, and we swam as a duo, so changing. We started out swimming, changing about every 800 meters, by the end we were changing every two hundred meters.

Thys Lombard
Okay. And tell me, a 400-meter swimmer. Did you ever compete in the 1500 competitively, or were you more short distance?

Paul Blackbeard
I love sprints, so 1500 was far too far. Nowadays I do 1500s, I can't believe I've moved into longer distances.

Thys Lombard
I think Ryk Neethling changed from a 1500 swimmer, he converted himself into a 50 meter and hundred-meter swimmer, which I think is pretty amazing too, because it's a different approach to training and to racing. So you do the longer distances as well?

Paul Blackbeard
I'm doing the longer distances. Now, if I look at the Australian Master's competition. I've got all the Australian swimming records from the 50 100 200 400 800 1500. And some of the names of those people that held Australian records were good swimmers. I'm kind of pleased I range from sprints to long.

Thys Lombard
When I grew up, everybody wore the Marks Spitz Speedos. I think you still remember those. Have you ever met Mark Spitz?

Paul Blackbeard
No, but he was, again, one of my heroes. I mean, in terms of his stroke and what he did, I used to watch that all the time,

Thys Lombard
And Jonty Skinner?

Paul Blackbeard
Jonty's dad used to give us massages. He had an old, like a sausage, before the race. He was fantastic. He just so generous, so kind of do that.

Thys Lombard
So Jonty is a bit older than you?

Paul Blackbeard
Jonty is older than me, but I swam against Jonty just before he went off to the States, in 100 freestyle, when he did the 51,9 or something like that and I did 52 something. Of course, he went on a year later to break the world record.

Thys Lombard
And do you know if Jonty is still swimming?

Paul Blackbeard
I saw him in Colorado about seven or eight years ago now, when he was coaching the American team.

Thys Lombard
So he's still involved in swimming?

Paul Blackbeard
He was the coach at the American high altitude center, in Colorado. Yes, he's still coaching.

Thys Lombard
In March, when you came for a wine tasting, you had some of your old swimming buddies with you, and you're actually still friends?

Paul Blackbeard
John Harker was the guy who was with us, that's right. Yeah.

Thys Lombard
And so you still have contact with some of your old swimming mates?

Paul Blackbeard
Lots of them. I mean many of them. And the nice thing, about, going back to the fact that I traveled with my company so much, is that I've made swimming friends now all around the world. I've got swimming records in Sweden, and London, Italy and the States. But friends as well, because of that, you kind of connect with people. I stay in touch.

Thys Lombard
Having broken records and competed on the highest level, what keeps you motivated, what gets you back in the pool tomorrow?

Paul Blackbeard
Part of it is the camaraderie. I like the people, I like the swimming people that I meet. So part of it is just that that whole network of people and then the friends that you make. And then there is just the personal satisfaction of actually getting, can you better? Your personal best. You're competing against what you used to do. Not what I used long ago, but what I did last season.

Thys Lombard
Exactly, what is possible now as well. And obviously working hard and still putting in the hours. Aging is not really a factor if in your mind you can stay young, but you think you lose the ability...

Paul Blackbeard
But the body gets a bit older. Going back to the thing about listening to the body. I mean I will actually now get out of a session if I'm feeling that that's a little past where I should go. I very seldom now push it past where it should go. Just look after it. But consistency is one of the key things.

Thys Lombard
Yeah and you mentioned eating healthfully. When you were young you ate anything you could. Now, what are some things you will not eat?

Paul Blackbeard
Very very lucky I have a wife who is actually quite knowledgeable in that whole area, and she looks after the food well. Down on sugars, good on proteins, but kind of just keep the balance.

Thys Lombard
That's awesome. Paul, thank you very much for your time. It's just awesome to sit here with you and chat with you, and you come back to South Africa regularly so I hope to catch up with you soon.

Paul Blackbeard
Maybe next year at the Cape Mile obviously, we'll see.

Thys Lombard
Thank you very much.

Paul Blackbeard
Thanks, Thys