South Africa’s Midmar Mile – the world’s largest open water swim – was swum for the first time in 1974 when three friends, Mike Arbuthnot, Dick Park and Brian Glover, unable to compete in the Buffalo Mile in East London because of petrol restrictions, decided to stage a race in KwaZulu-Natal.
One hundred and fifty-three competitors entered the first event, with the youngest swimmer being 10 years old. Victory went to Trevor Strydom, with Owen Ryan and Martin Godfrey finishing second and third.
Since that time Godfrey has competed in all but one event, with Mike Arbuthnot and Mike Pengelly holding the distinction of having taken part in every single one, although one of Pengelly’s swims was unofficial because he was taking part in the World Masters Lifesaving Championships in New Zealand.
Like Godfrey, Gail Bristow has missed only one Midmar Mile and she holds the women’s record.
1975: first women’s entries
A year after the first event, in 1975, the first women’s entries were received, but were viewed as unofficial. Debbie McLaren was the first women’s winner.
In the same year, Wayne Riddin, now the convenor of the Midmar Mile and coach of the powerful Seals Swimming Club, as well as a a former national coach, won the men’s event, smashing the record by over three minutes.
In 1976, with the size of the entry growing quickly, a time limit of one hour was imposed for the swim. Six hundred and thirty-four swimmers started the race, which was once again dominated by Riddin. Linda Jardin claimed the women’s win by less than a metre over Karin Fritsch.
1977: top swimmers take notice
The following year the number of entries topped 1 000 for the first time as many top swimmers gave the race their attention. Springbok Paul Blackbeard won, with two-time winner Riddin relegated to fourth. Karin Fritsch, narrowly beaten in 1976, went one better than her previous swim to take the women’s honours.
Riddin’s attempt to claim a third win come up short again in 1978 when Jacques Marais claimed victory. Karin Fritsch failed to make the start on time because of a puncture and had to swim in an unofficial capacity alongside the men. In her absence, Caroline Wylde lifted the women’s title.
With the number of entries nearing the 2 000 mark, Jacques Marais successfully defended his title, while Karin Fritsch avoided any mishaps on the way to the race and reclaimed the women’s crown, with her sister Connie finishing second.
The number of entrants leapt to 2 500 in 1980, prompting organisers to raise the question of qualification requirements for 1981. Marais, like Riddin, fell short in his attempt to win the Mile for a third time. Nicky Gray finished first, while Pat Butcher, at only 15 years of age, won the women’s event.
1981: entries top 3 000
In 1981, the number of entries leapt again, topping the 3 000 mark. This led to a new format at the start, with swimmers divided into groups according to age. There was also a reduction in the time allowed to complete the raise, down by 10 minutes to 50 minutes.
Gary Brinkman, runner-up to Nicky Gray the previous year, was victorious this time around, while Pat Butcher successfully defended her title.
The following year more categories were added as entries again topped the 3 000 mark. Both 1981 winners, Gary Brinkman and Pat Butcher, successfully defended their titles – Butcher becoming the first woman to win the Mile three times (in succession and in total).
1983: drought strikes
In 1983 the Midmar Dam was hit by a devastating drought and was only 43% full for the Mile. Vance Sterley, winner of the boy’s under-14 title in 1980, became the first swimmer to win at both that and the men’s level, while Sue Erasmus claimed the women’s honours, with Pat Butcher studying in the United States.
In 1984 the versatile Springbok Graham Hill won the race, finishing less than a second ahead of Hugh Ross. Lee Pennefather held off Gail Jeffrey to win the women’s event.
Entries in 1984 had fallen below 3 000, but in 1985 they increased once more. Graham Hill added another win to his victory of the previous year, while Debbie Wade edged in ahead of title defender Lee Pennefather.
In 1986 Graham Hill attempted to do what no other man had done, win the Midmar Mile three times. However, he couldn’t get it right as Shaun Rivalland, third the year before, took line honours. Petro Nortje, a two-time winner in the girl’s under-14 race, laid claim to the women’s title.
1987: Hill goes for three (again), fails
Entries topped 3 500 in 1987, and Hill failed again to lift a third title, finishing third behind Craig Lifford and Alan Lonsdale. Hayley Bertram won the women’s race.
The following year, with entries nearing 4 000, Lonsdale improved on his runner-up finish of 1987 to win the men’s race. Durban University student Simon Lessing, later to become the world triathlon champion while competing for Great Britain, finished second. In the women’s event, Hayley Bertram took her second victory.
1989: KwaZulu-Natal stranglehold broken
Bertram was unable to defend her title in 1989 after her entry arrived late. Debbie Hope became the new women’s champion in her absence, while Andrew O’Flaherty became the first non-KwaZulu-Natalian to win the men’s event, edging out defending champion Alan Lonsdale for the win.
The 4 000-entry mark was topped for the first time as the Midmar Mile entered the nineties. Alan Lonsdale reversed the previous year’s result by beating Andrew O’Flaherty, while in the women’s event Natasha Figge claimed her first title.
John Velloza, third in 1990, sneaked in by just over half a second over Manie Wessels to win in 1991, while Natasha Figge repeated her winning effort of the previous year.
In 1992 Paul Fryer swam to the men’s title by eight seconds over Dylan Botha, while Figge made it a hat-trick of wins in the women’s race.
The next year Fryer totally dominated the event, recording the largest ever victory margin of one minute and three seconds. The story stayed the same in the women’s race, with Figge making it victory number four in a row – eclipsing the three in a row won by Pat Butcher in 1980-82.
Fryer was chasing the elusive third title in 1994, but he too lost out. Two Free Staters, Ryk Neethling and Lourens Appelgyn, relegrated the defending champion to third spot, but in the women’s race it was a case of deja vu as Figge added a fifth title to her collection.
1995: six in a row for Figge
1994 had seen entries topping the 5 000 mark for the first time. In 1995, with entries soaring by over 1 000 more, Ryk Neethling took advantage of the lower level of the dam to set the fastest time ever over the course, while Figge won for a sixth time.
Neethling would have been a good bet to become the first three-time men’s winner in 1996, but chose instead to concentrate on the Olympic Games in Atlanta. Gareth Fowler took advantage of his absence to claim the crown. In the women’s race, with Natasha Figge no longer competing, Sheona Lottering claimed the win.
In 1997 almost 8 000 swimmers completed the race as Gustav Stander became the men’s champion and Robyn Bradley improved from runner-up in 1996 to become women’s champion.
The Midmar Mile turned 25 in 1998, and for the first time an international star won the event.
Germany’s Jorg Hoffman, a former world champion over 400 metres and 1 500 metres, powered to victory in the second-fastest time in the race’s history, while Donna Leslie snatched victory from Bronwyn Dedekind in a thrilling finish to the women’s event. The entry for the anniversary event was a record 9 600.
1999: three brothers in the top 10
In 1999 over 10 000 swimmers finished the Midmar Mile for the first time in the race’s history. Rob Mackay claimed the men’s victory ahead of Carl Storm and Terence Parkin, while Bronwyn Dedekind moved up one position to win the women’s race.
An amazing feat was accomplished by the Storm brothers in the men’s event, with Carl claiming second, Anton seventh and Brad ninth.
Victory in 2000 went to Terence Parkin, who edged out previous winner Gareth Fowler for the win after a tight, tough tussle. Parkin went on that year to win silver in the 200 metres breaststroke at the Olympic Games in Sydney. Marieka Theunissen dethroned Bronwyn Dedekind for the women’s title, having competed in the company event the previous year.
2001: Neethling the first man to win three
In 2001 the hat-trick hoodoo on the men’s race was finally broken when Ryk Neethling became the first man to win the Midmar Mile three times. Defending champion Parkin pushed him hard, but Neethling finally managed the win by five seconds over his Olympic teammate.
In the women’s race, Hungary’s 15-year-old Diana Hegedus was involved in a tremendous tussle with Melissa Corfe, finally pulling ahead in the finishing stages of the race to take the win.
Neethling was unable to defend his title in 2002 after visa problems prevented him from returning from the United States. In his absence, Terence Parkin claimed his second victory. Diana Hegedus successfully defended her women’s title, clipping 42 seconds off her winning time of the previous year.
2003: 16 050 entries
Neethling, making his return to the race in 2003 as the field swelled to a record 16 050 entrants, had to settle for fourth in a very competitive field, with victory going to former winner Gareth Fowler.
Melissa Corfe won the women’s title by half-a-minute from Cheryl Townsend, with two-time winner Diana Hegedus, looking for her third victory in succession, relegated to third place.
2004 brought yet another record entry, this time 16 124. Peter Stanayk took victory in the men’s race in 17:13, coming home seven seconds ahead of second placed Troyden Prinsloo, with former winner Gareth Fowler in third place.
There were some big names slightly lower down the finish list: 2000 Olympic silver medal winner in the 200 metres breaststroke, Terence Parkin, ended fifth, while Darian Townsend claimed seventh place. Later in the year he would be part of the South African 4 by 100 metres freestyle relay team that smashed the world record at the Athens Olympic to win gold.
Keri-Anne Payne won the women’s race in a superb 17:40, heading off rising distance star Melissa Corfe for the title. Cheryl Townsend ended third.
In 2005, Troyden Prinsloo won the race for the first time. He finished in 18 minutes and 28 seconds as the course was at its longest distance ever, covering 1 639 metres. Dutch swimmer Maarten van der Weidien came home in second, with Gareth Fowler in third. In 2008, Van der Weidien won gold in the open water 10-kilometre swim at the Olympic Games.
Victory in the women’s race again went to Keri-Anne Payne, as the South African-born British athlete held off Dutch 25 kilometre open water champion Edith van Dijk and Melissa Corfe of South Africa.
2006: record times
Both Prinsloo and Payne were successful in their title defences in 2006, with both swimmers winning in record times.
Prinsloo crossed the finish line in 17 minutes and 47 seconds, with Australia’s Kurtis McGillivary in second and Chad Ho in third.
In the women’s race, Australia’s Melissa Gorman ended second, with Payne’s teammate Cassie Patten taking third.
Prinsloo returned to South Africa in 2007, taking time off from his studies at the University of Georgia, in an attempt to become the first man to win the Midmar Mile three years in succession. He never got the opportunity to do that as, for the first time ever, poor weather conditions led to the cancellation of the race.
Just before the event was called off, the women’s race did take place and this time Gorman moved up from her runner-up finish of 2006 to take victory in 19 minutes and 52 seconds. Melissa Corfe was second, with Payne, who was chasing her fourth won on the trot, coming home in third.
2008: sprint finish
The men’s title in 2008 was decided in a sprint finish as Shaun Dias exited the water just ahead of Chad Ho and held him off in a dash for the line after a tremendous tussle across the dam, which saw the pair matching each other stroke for stroke over the final 400 metres.
Hungarian swimmer Csabo Gersack captured third place.
The women’s title went Hungary’s way as Erika Hajnal chose a similar line to that taken by 2007 winner Melissa Gorman to once again consign Melissa Corfe to a second place finish. Remarkably, Corfe paid for following a similar course to the one she had adopted in 2007.
Hajnal finished in 20:27, with Corfe just three seconds back after a fierce finishing burst. Third place went to Melanie Greyling in 21:48.
Guiness Book of World Records
In 2009, the organisers decided it was time that the Midmar Mile received official recognition as the world’s largest open water swimming event, and contacted the Guinness Book of World Records to make this happen.
The tough economic conditions experienced around the world meant the rate of entries was slow until a last-minute spurt lifted the number to about 16 000. The 13 755 finishers secured a place for the Midmar Mile in the Guinness Book of World Records, along with the 3 110 finishers – the most yet – in a single event, the Non-Company relay.
The feature races were loaded with Olympians and the women’s title went to Beijing Olympic Games 10-kilometre Open Water silver medal winner Kerri-Anne Payne, who captured the title for the fourth time in 18:48. Germany’s Nadine Pastor took second place, three seconds behind Payne, with Hungary’s Evaline Verralzto finishing third.
The top South African finisher was Melissa Corfe, who ended fourth, one place ahead of Cassie Patten, the bronze medal winner in the open water swimming race in Beijing.
After a fantastic finish in the men’s race, it took 45 minutes before race organisers were able to declare SA Olympian Riaan Schoeman the winner. Both he and Hungary’s David Verraszto were timed in 17:34.
Chad Ho finished third, while defending champion Shaun Dias managed only seventh place in a highly talented field.
In 2010, the Midmar Mile surpassed the number of finishers that had earned the event a Guinness World Record a year earlier. Over 14 200 made it across the finishing line to easily better the 2009 mark.
The men’s race proved to be one of the closest in the 37-year history of the event, with six competitors spread in a line, matching one another stroke for stroke, with only 200 metres to go.
Chad Ho, who had become the first South African to win an open water swimming World Championships medal in 2009, edged ahead right at the finish to take victory in 18:39. Great Britain’s Dan Fogg was second in 18:40 and defending champion Riaan Schoeman third in 18:42.
The women’s race was dominated by the British open water swimming team. Keri-Anne Payne, the world champion over 10 kilometres, added a fifth Midmar Mile title to her list of achievements, stopping the clock in 19:24.
Katy Whitfield, who had led up until 1 300 metres, finished second in 19:27, with Cassie Patten in third place in 19:30. Kathryn Meaklim was South Africa’s top finisher, in sixth place, in 19:40.
In 2011, Chad Ho produced a very impressive swim to fend off a strong challenge from the British national team to successfully defend his men’s title in 18:27. David Davies, swimming on the opposite side of the course to Ho, finished in second, 11 seconds off the winning time, with another Briton Alfie Howes taking third in 18:47.
Keri-Anne Payne turned in a stunning performance in the women’s race. She surged into the lead early on and maintained a fast stroke pace to pull well clear of her nearest challangers. She won all three hot spots on her way to victory in an excellent 18:51. Cassie Patten and Charlotte Wooliscraft finished in the other podium positions to give Britain a 1-2-3 finish. Michelle Weber, in fourth, was the leading South African.
With Midmar Dam looking spectacular at 100 percent full, and the dam wall overflowing, another very successful event took place in 2012. It will be best remembered for a superb dice for the women’s title and record-setting swims by the men’s and women’s champions.
Chad Ho dominated the men’s race in choppy conditions to take victory in 18 minutes and 48 seconds, ahead of Troyden Prinsloo and Italian Federico Colalbertaldo. That made him the first man in 39 years to manage three wins in succession.
Keri-Anne Payne, meanwhile, was involved in a dice for the ages against American Ashley Twichell. They were neck-and-neck through all three hotspots at 400, 800, and 1 200 metres, but Payne eventually opened up a slight lead with the end in sight to win by just under two seconds in 20 minutes and 44 seconds. Briton Danielle Hall-Jackson placed third. Rene Warnes, in fifth, was the first of the South African finishers.
With her win, Payne broke open a tie with Natasha Panzera (nee Figge) to become the most successful swimmer in the history of the Midmar Mile with seven victories to her name.
The Midmar Mile celebrated its 40th anniversary in 2013 with another massive entry. Event founder, Mike “Buthy” Arbuthnot, swam two miles to take his tally to 80 miles at the age of 80, while Gail Bristow, an unofficial entrant when women were not allowed in the first year of the event, swam the Midmar Mile for a 39th year.
Chad Ho dominated the men’s race to win for a fourth year in a row, winning in 17:57, with Troy Prinsloo, an Olympian in the 10km open water swim in London, in second and Danie Marias in third.
American Ashley Twichell, second to Keri-Anne Payne in 2012, turned the tables on the seven-time champion, who was a little under-prepared, to score a convincing victory in 19:04, 17 seconds clear of the British star. World junior champion over five kilometres, Michelle Weber was the first South African finisher, in third place, with Hungarian pool star Katinka Hosszu in fourth.
Limbless American open water swimmer Craig Dietz stole the show by swimming a mile on Saturday and a second on Sunday.
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