Peter Rocchi

An interview with Thys Lombard

Interview with Springbok swimmer Peter Rocchi by Thys Lombard

16 September 2020.


TL 

Hi Peter. What a privilege to see your face for the first time and to meet you over this Zoom meeting but thanks so much for taking the time to dive in with me.

Before I start, I just want to share with you that your son Anthony contacted me on Monday or posted a video of Jonty Skinner, and I think you've achieved something that most people aspire to achieve and that's not that green blazer that you wearing. It's that your son absolutely adores you. I mean he said to me and I'll read from, from what he said, he said: Thys, you've got to interview my dad.

He was something of a freak. But he said it in a nice way. He said you took up swimming at the light late in life, and trained with Rudie Spoor and quickly rose to become a South African champion in breaststroke and once sold at the Commonwealth Games in 1958 and broke the Commonwealth record, that's coming from your own son. I think that's the biggest accolade any sportsman can get. So, definitely.

Let's dive straight in. Tell me, where did it all start, because I believe you will actually ferrying your sister to swimming lessons in the beginning. At what age was that? Let’s start there.

PR 

Right. At that stage. When I started, I was 16 years old. 16 years old, And I had a motorbike license, and my dad got me the motorbike. Basically, to take my sister, training, and I took her training, you know, she was actually a very good swimmer. And she, she got to provincial and national honours and I was very impressed with her and so I took her training. But you know after a while sitting watching name, training and swimming. And I got a bit bored with this, so I thought I must get involved myself.

So, you know, Rudie Spoor was the at Zoo Lake, and he had two lanes for his pupils and then they were a couple of lanes are open for other swimmers. So, I got in and I started swimming and basically just trying to keep up with them. And I actually spoke to Rudy and I, I said you know I'm quite keen to join you. He wasn't too keen in the beginning, but you know after I'd sort of swim there a number of times, he could see potential. And, you know, then I joined Rudie and swam and swam. I saw what I wanted to do was keep up with the others. And there were quite a few senior swimmers at the time, I was quite young at this stage - 16. And I thought that I might try and keep up with these guys, even though they were older and, you know, work quite well. And that's what basically got me going.

TL 

Wow. Tell me your sister, Joan. Was her name Joan?

PR 

Now my late sister Joan you she was 16 at the time, and she was actually at that stage she was a provincial and national champion, at that young age. She was very very good and so I was quite honoured to you know get into the same training squad and, you know, we became quite well known in the swimming circles. And we, both of us went to a couple of the Nationals to swim together and in those days the Carrie Cup which they called the Swimming Championships. And we both did very well. We both qualified for the Commonwealth Games. And it's actually the first time a brother and sister represented swam for South Africa at the same Games. So it was quite an achievement for both of us.

TL 

And was it reported in the news?  Was swimming a sport that had got a lot of coverage in the in the local newspapers?

PR 

Not as much as other sports as athletics and the other sports, but that was gaining momentum. And, you know, we sort of became quite well known in the swimming circles.

TL 

Tell me, how long was that before the 58 Commonwealth Games was in 1956 or 55 or when was that?

PR 

Well that started in 56.

TL 

Okay. So, within two years you qualified for the Commonwealth Games from starting. There must have been a bit of history before you were 16 so what got you, what got us into swimming? I know the coaching started with Rudy Spoor but you know what a competent swimmer at the age of 16 already.

PR 

Not really. Basically, I only started swimming when we used to go to the dam on picnics and so forth and, you know, swimming, the dam or. That was, you know, the amount of swimming, we did, but I just had that.

Once I saw the other swimmers. And I thought, you know, I can keep up with these guys, and I sort of looked at it as a challenge. And it was surprising because it actually came very quickly to me and that's why that's what got me involved. And, you know I have confidence in training. I have confidence in my coach Rudie Spoor. And, you know, I looked at my seniors, and I thought if they can do it, I'll do it. And you know I was quite young, quite a bit younger. It was my ambition just to keep up with these guys. And that's what started it all.

TL 

That's incredible. I know later in life your swimming was actually halted by a rugby injury. I want to get back to that but I don't want to jump the gun. Were you at that stage at the age of 16 playing other sports?

PR 

I played rugby yes, I was at Parktown Boys High School and you know I played rugby and so forth and. But, swimming, was the main sport at that stage.

TL 

 It's fantastic to hear and I'm so happy that you took up swimming. So, between 56, taking up swimming and 58 going to the Commonwealth Games, you went to Nationals. Quite a short period of time before you qualify for nationals and was it always great strength breaststroke?

PR 

I was always in breaststroke.

TL 

You were actually part of quite an interesting era of breaststroke when a lot of things happened. I think it was 1952 or something where, where the Japanese guy swam I think out of the 200 meters he saw the surface, just before the turns and then they changed those rules and then obviously later many more rules were changed. But you were a part of that. Quite an exciting time for breaststroke.

PR 

Correct, yes. Actually, what the Japanese swimmer, what he did. On a 50-yard pool. He would dive in and some most of the swimming underwater - most of the length under water. And I think he surfaced once or twice, you know to take a breath, and then go down and then carry on swimming. Now swimming underwater is much faster than swimming on the surface, and obviously he achieved times, which were quite a lot faster. than the times that were set at the Commonwealth Games, and the Olympic Games in that stage. And well the rules were changed. And when we swim it had changed that you were only, from the start, you were only allowed to do one kick when you dive in the pool. You do one arm pull and one kick underwater. And as you start your second arm pull, your head must be above the surface of the water. And that's how it had to remain, until you came to your turn. Once you turned you kick off, and then you can once again use a one arm full underwater one kick. And on the start of your second arm pull your head has got to be above the surface. It wasn't quite as fast as swimming the total, you know, a number of strokes underwater. But those were the rules.

TL 

And I think something that also came in later was you're not allowed to do a butterfly kick because a lot of guys use the butterfly kick and I remember I started swimming in 1976, a lot of disqualifications because there was a lot of dispute on the side of the pool, whether the guy or the girl did a butterfly kick or not. I was a bit difficult to do, actually, judge from above the water. I mean they didn't have cameras under the water, so I think a lot of illegal kicks happened and people didn't see that and obviously it helps you time as well.

 Take me to the Commonwealth Games. How is the team selected, did they have South African trials? And once the team was selected, how was it announced? Can you still remember? I mean brother and sister making the team, besides the fact that you were the first brother and sister to go to the Commonwealth Games, it must have been euphoria in the house.

PR 

Yes, the trials were actually the national championships. I think was that year was held in Durban. We swim at the National Championships. My sister was a South African woman's breaststroke champion. And at that stage I held the SA record for South African men 220 breaststroke. And, well, the national champs were the trials for the Commonwealth Games.

TL 

Okay. And you won your final?

PR 

 Yes, and I mean we both won our finals and in a qualifying time. So, we were selected. And, you know, for the Commonwealth Games.

TL 

It's so so amazing and taking you to the Commonwealth Games. You were competing against guys who had just been to the Olympics or were building up to the 1960 Olympics. Tell me about your main rival, the Australian.

PR 

Right. Okay. Basically, my main rival was Terry Gathercole from Australia. He was an Olympic champion from the previous Olympic Games. And he held a he held the world record. At the, you know, in our heats at the Commonwealth Games, I set a time, which was a Commonwealth record, in my heat. Well I won my heat. He swam in another heat. He also broke the record. He actually broke my record. Okay, he was faster than me. And so, automatically, I mean, both of us were in the final. And well we met in the final. I can't remember his exact time, but he beat me, and I was very close in second place. He won the gold medal, and I won the silver medal.

TL 

Did you know the moment you touched that you were second, or did you not know exact position?

PR 

No no, in the final, he was had the fastest time, and normally that swimmer goes to swim in lane four. Yes, and I was, you know, the second fastest, in lane three. So you know we were swimming together, so I could see. Although I was only 18 at the Games, and Terry was 23.

TL 

Five years makes a big difference. A lot more power.

PR 

Correct.

TL

It must have been so exciting, you know, at the age of 18 to, first of all, get on a plane go to Cardiff. I believe the pool was purposely built for the Commonwealth Games and the Empire Games. I don't know what it was called. Empire Games or the Empire and Commonwealth Games.

PR 

No, the British Empire, it was the sixth British Empire Commonwealth Games. That was the full title.

TL 

 Okay. Quite a mouth full that was. I believe you guys were the last South Africans to go, because shortly after that we were sort of kicked out of all international competition. And I think six years until a South African team would partake in the Commonwealth Games again.

PR 

That is correct. In fact, the 1958 Commonwealth Games, was the last Games, Commonwealth Games, that South Africa could partake in. And then, the Rome Olympics was the last Olympics that South Africa could partake in. That was 1960.

TL 

Did we send a team of swimmers to their Olympics?

PR 

Yes. Oh yes. Yeah, unfortunately, you know, I had a problem you know due to playing rugby I had a cartilage removed from my knee and I never really got back into swimming after that operation and so, basically, that cost me the Rome Olympics.

TL 

If I have my math right you would have been 20 years old at the Rome Olympics, just approaching your peak. I don't even want to say at your peak, because at 20 as a male swimmer is not even close to his peak.

PR 

Correct. But in those days a male swimmer would peak around about say from 24 or 25, years of age.

TL 

I mean, in a perfect life that would have been your introduction to the Olympic Games and then four years later in 64 be at your peak. I guess life doesn't work out, always the way you want to do work out. How do you handle the disappointment of not being able to? I mean you must have, you must have thought, jeez, another four years and I'd be kicking their butts?

PR 

Yes, but, you know, the thing is, I came into swimming, and it was only two years before I actually swim at the Commonwealth Games, and soon after the Games, after I got back problems started with my knee, and I had an operation. So, you know, that basically was a big disappointment.

So, you know, I didn't really carry on. I tried swimming for a while after that, but I couldn't achieve the times that I did the Commonwealth Games. And, look, I had a lot of other interests as well. I went to London. Actually, I also swam in London, I swim for our local club there and applied rugby for Southgate and I really enjoyed it and you know that sort of took my mind off.

TL 

Okay, great to look at you now you still be quite fit to me. Are you doing any sports at the moment? How do you keep fit?

PR 

Not really, I don't do any sport as such. Look, I've always been very sort of physically involved in it active. You know, I was involved in furniture manufacturing, now the family business, and I was, you know, I never worked in an office I was always in the factory so I kept myself busy and active all the time. So, I didn't really carry on with much sport thereafter, but I get physically very active.

TL 

 Okay. And that knee that stopped you from swimming I hope it's fine now. Medical science has improved a lot. Are you all good with the knee?

PR 

Yes, that's all well and fine now and no problems. I've had both hips replaced I've had a need replaced,  my shoulders are eina, but I think that's also due to, all right it was in the beginning, all the training that we used to do and all the swimming, but thereafter I did heavy physical work in the factory, all the years. So, I mean you know it's caught up with me and all that.

TL 

I look at you and there are no regrets. I mean you would have gone, you would have done the same things, even if you knew you had to have your hips and your knees replaced? I mean sports is just, just one of those things where while we're doing it we don't care what the damage is later in life. I can see you're not someone to think back and have regrets. Do you think swimming, and because swimming takes a lot of discipline, and you know looking at a black line swimming up and down for two or three hours in the morning and the afternoon, to reach the sort of times and heights that you have. Has that prepared you for discipline and hard work in later life?

PR 

Definitely, definitely, but there's just one thing. You know I mentioned, okay all the physical efforts that I put into everything. It wasn't, I wouldn't say the swimming caused any problems. I'd say I think it was basically the rugby, you know, because you know you have knocks and falls and tackles and twists an ankle or whatever, but also all the physical work. Swimming certainly didn't give me any problems. I don't think for my joints that I've had ops.

TL 

Just out of curiosity what position did you play in rugby?

PR 

I played applied to prop forward, support, in those days.

TL 

Prop forward, I don't believe it. You look like a flank or eight men to me or even a lock.

PR 

Yeah, yeah well in those days I played a prop.

TL 

Can you believe it?

Tell me so after swimming, obviously, you went into business, I think a lot of people, well in those years they weren't professional sportsman, so you either trained and worked or if you had very wealthy parents and you could just swim but I don't know of anybody who just, you know, you had a normal life at a certain age you started working. You mentioned furniture factories that your parents had and you just got involved in that.

PR 

Yes. My grandfather actually started the furniture factory. And my father, you know, he sort of carried on with it and I went in as a grandson.

TL 

Obviously at the age of 18, 19, and 20 when you were training really hard, was there time to get a bit of sleep and not work, or was it always that you know you swim, and you work?

PR 

 No, I wasn't in the factory at that stage. I only went into the factory when I came back from London. I was 21 in those days, okay and from then on, I went into the factory.

TL 

Again, you're your biggest fan your son mentioned to me that you got involved in the administration of swimming?

PR 

 Yes, for many years, it must have been at least 25 years, I was very involved in the officiating side, you know, as an official. Well I was a provincial and national referee, you know, there was a whole crowd of us who officiated, and like certain tournament's you know we would swap positions, and everybody sort of rotates. I spent many many years in officiating in swimming. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was also very involved in when we started the swimming club, which was in Randburg. A lot of the swimmers came from Linden and a lot from Randburg. So we basically started the swimming club which is known today as the Linrand swimming club. They're still operating. And, yeah, I totally enjoyed being involved in swimming. It also at that Linrand swimming club, at that pool, I also one day got an idea. You know, for the, for the club to have its internal swimming championships. And I called it the Linrand mini Olympics. And I tell you, it, it was a major success, and all these little children came and, you know we bought medals for them.

TL 

You made a contribution on many levels to South African swimming and thank you for that. I know, when we start out as soon as it's not about the contribution we make we love the sport and we just do it because we love it but you know a lot of hours unpaid hours do go into especially through officials. I see now today, I'm still photographing a lot of swimming, I see Annette Cowley, you know, world-class swimmers Anthony Pierce, Jeanine Steenkamp whose now Pierce, with their stopwatches. They are now the officials and people don't even realize how good they were as athletes, so thanks for that contribution. Well, obviously it rubbed off on your kids, your son is quite an accomplished swimmer himself or used to be. You obviously inspired him. How is it like to be a dad and have a son, competing, and again all the nerves?

PR 

You know pretty well and, you know, the thing is when I was officiating, I was an official, you know, I couldn't be a dad.

TL 

It does give a bit of distance and it helps you to calm the nerves a bit when you're not just watching, and you focus on the job at hand. Okay, before we sign off, I believe you've got your Commonwealth medal with you. Would you mind showing us. It's a special piece of jewelry.

PR 

It is yes. This is the medal, that I received. This is the silver medal. It's got the sixth British Commonwealth Games medal, and then the other side it's got my details, my name.

TL 

Well I'm going to ask your son to photograph it up close and then we can add into the video so that people can see that but, you know, I'm so grateful for the time that you've put in as a swimmer because you obviously were a great advertisement for and an ambassador for South African swimming when you went to the Commonwealth and you and your sisters, congratulations on this, but thank you for the 20 odd years after that and obviously being a dad ferrying your son, not only your sister but you probably spend a lot of time next to the pool watching your kids swim. And thank you for your contribution to South African swimming and building the history of a very proud history of South African swimming. We all grateful for them, and thanks for sharing your story with us. I really appreciate it.

PR 

Thys it's, it's been such a pleasure and honor. Thank you very much. I do love the sport, and, you know, actually, at my age now. You know I'm not very I'm not involved in swimming anymore, but I thoroughly enjoyed the time I've put back into swimming. I really enjoyed it. Thank you.

TL 

Thank you so much and be blessed and be healthy and stay away from COVID and all these things that's going around because I think you've still got a massive contribution to make for many years. Thank you so much.

PR 

It's a pleasure. Thank you, Thys, it's been an honour.

TL 

Thank you.