Parkin: Deaflympics legend continues

12 July 2013

Michael Phelps has won more medals than any other Olympic athlete. South Africa’s Terence Parkin occupies a similar place in the world of Deaflympics – only he has won more medals, including more golds, than the US legend, and his career is still going strong.

Parkin is set to add to his amazing record at the Summer Deaflympics, which take place in Sofia, Bulgaria from 26 July to 4 August.

While Phelps finished his Olympic career with 18 gold medals and 22 medals in total, the South African star will go to Germany having already won 29 Deaflympics gold medals. In 2005 in Melbourne, his return was an eye-popping Deaflympics record of 12 gold medals and a silver.

Before anyone thinks the Deaflympics are not a big deal, the last time they were held, in Taiwan in 2009, 4 000 athletes were in attendance. To compare that with the Paralympics, at London in 2012 there were about 4 237 athletes that took part.


Parkin has always been a star in swimming, but he has not restricted himself to the pool. At the 2009 Deaflympics, he contested the road race and picked up a bronze medal. That followed his achievement of winning road race gold at the 2006 World Deaf Cycling Championships and silver in the cross-country mountain biking event.

This time around, in Sofia, Parkin is showing no signs of slowing down. He will be taking on swimming, road cycling and mountain biking but, rather disappointingly, even for a man with an Olympic silver medal, he remains largely uncelebrated in South Africa.

Wayne Riddin, the head coach of the South African team at the Sydney Olympics in 2000, where Parkin won silver in the 200 metres breaststroke, said that while he recognises what swimmer Natalie du Toit has achieved as a star of the Paralympic world, Parkin has probably achieved more in his career.

‘An inspiration’

“Terence Parkin, who has been deaf for virtually all his life, has achieved, to me, a hell of a lot more,” Riddin told SAinfo this week. “He also got a silver medal in an able-bodied Olympic Games, and he didn’t get as much credit [for it as he should have received], and I think we should be looking at it and saying he is an inspiration to the whole of South Africa.”

Riddin pointed out that last year, 12 years after Parkin medalled at the Sydney Olympics, he took part in the South African Olympic trials, and while Neil Versfeld won a place in the 200 metres breaststroke, Parkin was second in a time comparable to that which he swam in Sydney.

Max Cluer is a friend of Parkin’s and a cycling commentator who has worked at the Olympics and at numerous top UCI mountain biking international events around the world. He was astonished to discover that Parkin would be attending this year’s Deaflympics with a seven-year old mountain bike.

He had to do something, Cluer told SAinfo, so he called up Andrew McLean of Cycle Lab, who in turn got together with Willie du Plooy of KTM Bike Industries, and they arranged two state-of-the-art KTM bicycles, for road and mountain biking, for Parkin to use at the Deaflympics.


“Terence is this icon,” Cluer said. “He’s one of the Princess of Monaco’s [former South African Olympic swimmer Charlene Wittstock’s] 14 ambassadors around the world.”

That list of ambassadors includes the world’s number one tennis player, Novak Djokovic, former Formula One world champion Jenson Button, five-time Olympic swimmer Dara Torres, and two-time overall World Cup champion skier Aksel Lund Svindal.

Citing Parkin’s influence in the deaf world, Cluer explained: “He’s such an icon in the deaf community, so much so that last year at our Energiser Night Race in Johannesburg he brought 150 deaf athletes to the event.”

Parkin has been a familiar face at the world’s largest open water swimming event, the Midmar Mile, for many years and twice won the men’s open event in 2000 and 2002. It was at the Midmar Mile that he first made his mark.

Starting in the second batch of swimmers in the 13-and-under age group, behind all the seeds, he powered through the field and, when the times had been adjusted, he had taken a stunning victory. It was astounding, but Parkin has been doing astounding things all his life. His Olympic silver medal is the most obvious highlight in a career filled with them.

World record holder

There was a time, when he was competing on the World Cup swimming circuit, that Parkin held every single Deaflympic record in short course swimming.

Yet, through it all, Parkin has retained his humility, as the long-time Midmar Mile organiser Wayne Riddin recalled: “I go back to when he travelled to Cairo with the SA junior team as an age group swimmer for the first time.

“It was my first experience of him as a deaf swimmer in an able-bodied team, and I remember that he was that fun guy, always with a smile on his face, and he’s still that same guy today. He’s still got that face where he comes in and he’s a happy guy in the swimming world, and it’s probably a comfort zone for him.”

Riddin, who has also paddled numerous Dusis with Parkin as his partner, added: “I look at how he is putting back into swimming, now coaching, as well as still competing at the Midmar Mile, having completed the feat of being the only person to do 16 Midmar Miles in a weekend, swimming to the start and then swimming the event.”

Nowadays, Parkin regularly swims all eight miles annually at the Midmar Mile, raising money for charities associated with deafness. Now living in Johannesburg, he joins over half the total field of the event, about 9 000 swimmers, to faithfully make the journey down to the dam in the Kwazulu-Natal Midlands.


Riddin believes Parkin could be a top Dusi paddler if he chose to focus on the extremely testing challenge of paddling and portaging.

“I’m a lot older and it has been a privilege that Terence has wanted to paddle the Dusi with me. He sits in the back of the canoe and is the powerhouse. It’s a pleasure because I realise how strong he is when he sits in the back of the boat,” said Riddin.

“It would be interesting to see if he actually trained for something like the Dusi exactly what level he could achieve. I would love to see him with somebody like a Martin Dreyer, but he’s still got many, many years to give back to sport in South Africa and we should be looking at him inspiring younger kids, just as Martin Dreyer is doing in the Change A Life programme.”

Before Parkin considers further options, however, there is the matter of the Deaflympics. His tally of gold medals stands at 29. Where will it be when this year’s Deaflympics are over? And will the former Olympic silver medallist be welcomed as a hero on his return to South Africa?