Midmar Mile ‘sets the bar’: FINA expert

14 February 2011

Steve Munatones, a FINA technical committee member for open water swimming, is also one of 28 people with voting rights for the International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame. After visiting South Africa’s aQuelle Midmar Mile on the weekend, he told SAinfo: “It sets the worldwide bar in every category.”

Munatones, a former world 25-kilometre open water champion and coach of the USA’s national team at numerous open water World Championships, named a number of areas in which the world can learn from the Midmar Mile, including safety, hospitality, organisation, the inclusion of disabled athletes (he is involved with the Special Olympics), signage, awards, and the scale of the event.

He was also very impressed with the gender breakdown of the event, which was 53% male to 47% female. This bucks the worldwide trend of two to one in favour of males. Munatones predicts (in fact, he first predicted it some years ago) that the narrowing of the gap will continue around the world until more women take part in the sport than men.

Future Princess of Monaco in attendance

The 2011 aQuelle Midmar Mile, which took place at the Midmar Dam near Howick in the picturesque KwaZulu-Natal Midlands on the weekend, also benefitted from the attendance of former South African Olympic swimmer, Charlene Wittstock, who will become the Princess of Monaco in mid-year when she marries Prince Albert.

Wittstock raised the profile of the event with her presence and raised almost R600 000 for Special Olympics South Africa at the same time. On the Thursday preceding the weekend’s racing, she handed over a cheque to Special Olympics SA at a dinner to welcome her and other dignitaries.

Wittstock had invited former 10-time Olympic medallist Franziska van Almsick to accompany her, and the German beauty was followed by a German camera crew. Strangely, though, for the first time in a number of years there were no Germans in contention for line honours in the open events on Sunday.

Wittstock, Van Almsick, Olympic gold medallist Roland Schoeman, and Olympic silver medallist Terence Parkin all swam in race one on Saturday, which includes swimmers with disabilities and Ironman and Ironwoman competitors, as part of their fund-raising efforts.

Afterwards, Wittstock and Van Almsick indicated that they would like to return to the race, with Wittstock saying that maybe next time Prince Albert would also be in tow!

Lewis Pugh, the man known as “the Human Polar Bear” and a renowned campaigner for the environment, swam to raise money for Doctor Ian Player’s Wilderness Leadership School, and later spoke passionately about the need to look after the country’s rivers and water supply. He noted that the water in the Midmar Dam was, at 25 degrees Celcius, considerably warmer than when he swam in minus-1.7 degrees at the North Pole!

Swimmers with disabilities

Also in the event was Chad Gifford, a winner of the Courage Trophy the previous two years. Gifford, who has no lower limbs, was swimming as a member of the Eight-Mile Club, which raises funds for charity by the members of the club swimming all eight miles. Incredibly, he achieved the feat.

For the 14th time in 14 attempts, Craig Groenewald, competing in the mentally-impaired category, won the first race going away in a time of 21 minutes and six seconds.

Achmet Hassiem, who is missing a lower leg, led the physically disabled swimmers in a time of 22:24, while Hendrik Nortje was the leading visually impaired swimmer. Joshua Grog claimed the Courage Trophy.

The prizes for swimmers with disabilities were presented by the future Princess of Monaco, who showed a heartfelt affection for them.

Company, non-company, family relays

Saturday’s racing also included the Company Relay, the Non-Company Relay and the Family Relay.

Dias and Sons Tool and Die, featuring 2008 Midmar Mile open category winner Shaun with his brothers Gareth and Paul, claimed victory in the Company Relay.

With the times of the top three finishers of each company counting, they ended in second, fourth, and seventh place overall to secure a convincing victory by about eight-and-a-half minutes over Waterbrats. Chris McGlynn crossed the finishing line first in 20 minutes and 47 seconds, three seconds ahead of Shaun Dias.

Two events later, the brothers combined to win the Family Relay, with Gareth finishing second behind Ruan du Plessis, Shaun in third, and Paul in 15th.

The Non-Company relay was won by a Varsity College team that included 2009 Midmar Mile open champion Riaan Schoeman, Kathyrn Meaklim and Rohan Jacobs, who finished just ahead of the International All Stars.

The Internationals produced the leading two swimmers, with Slovenian national champion Rok Kerin taking victory in 19:41, followed by rising South African star Abdul Malick Railoun.

Defending men’s open champion Chad Ho, who won the overall Fina 10-kilometre World Cup men’s open water title last year, used the race to get a feel for the water, but didn’t push himself at all, clocking a time of 23 minutes and 30 seconds.

Age group races: women

Sunday’s more competitive racing began with the girls’ 13-and-under and women’s 31-and-over event. As is usually the case, the younger swimmers trumped the older competitors, with Marlise Ross winning in 20 minutes and 49 seconds, 17 seconds clear of Sasha-Lee Nordengen.

Third place went to Kerry Hunter, who last year won a car in Halfway Toyota’s annual car giveaway at the Midmar Mile.

Rachelle Isakov won the women’s 31-to-40 age group, Barbara Bowley was even faster and the winner among women 41-to-50, while Rita Townsend captured the title in the 51-to-60 age group, and Bev Shuttleworth led the women 61-and-over home.

Corinne Evans, at the age of 74, was the oldest female finisher. Gail Bristow, meanwhile, completed her 37th Midmar Mile. The only race she has missed out on was in its first year, when female swimmers were not allowed.

Age group races: men

In the men’s race, the 31-and-over group stood up well to their younger opposition, which was not surprising as the dominating winner was former three-times Midmar Mile champion Ryk Neethling, the only man in history to contest the final of the 100 and 1 500 metres freestyle at the Olympic Games.

He clearly enjoyed his swim, using freestyle, backstroke, and breaststroke, and even stopping for a short interview along the way. Despite his laid-back approach, Neethling crossed the line in a strong 20 minutes and 38 seconds to finish 21 seconds ahead of the under-13 winner, Matthew Meyer, who was also the second swimmer over the line.

Meyer had the crowd in stitches, describing how he had chased Neethling and would be back to beat him next year. He described the Olympic gold medal winner as his role model and wore a massive grin as Neethling joined him to shake hands.

Gregg Price was the third man across the line and the winner of the 41-to-50 age group in 21:11. Mike Semple, a member of the Eight Mile Club, topped the 51-to-60 category in 21:48, while Charles Flesker led the 61-and-over men in 26 minutes and four seconds. Tiger Bulafkin, aged 81, was the oldest male finisher.

The fourth-oldest man to complete the Midmar Mile was 78-year-old Mike Arbuthnot, one of the founders of the race, and the only man to have officially swum it every year since its inception in 1974. He swam a total of four miles over the course of the weekend, leaving him with 74 miles in total, as he has previously also swum as a member of the Eight Mile Club. “Buthy”, as he is known, aims to have swum 80 miles by the time he turns 80.

World champion Keri-Anne Payne

The ladies’ 13-to-30 race featured the British national open water swimming team, including 2009 10-kilometre open water world champion Keri-Anne Payne, who had previously won the Midmar Mile five times, as well as winning the 13-and-under title.

She put in one of the most dominating and outstanding swims in the 38-year history of the race to completely destroy the challenges of her nearest rivals. Cassie Patten, like Payne, a medallist at the Beijing Olympics, hit the water first, but the Johannesburg-born Payne soon hit the front and took charge of the race.

Maintaining a fantastic stroke rate, she pulled clear at a remarkable pace and by the first hot spot at 400 metres her lead was 50 metres. By 800 metres, she was 75 metres ahead.

Behind Payne, her fellow Britons Patten and Charlotte Wooliscraft were battling South Africa’s Michelle Weber, the winner of the 31-and-under title last year, and Rene Warnes for the minor podium places. Another British swimmer, Abbie Henderson, swimming the Midmar Mile for the first time, also moved up into contention.

Payne raced on, claiming the third and final hotspot at 1 200 metres, and went on to cross the line to massive applause from the big crowd in 18 minutes and 51 seconds, a huge 38 seconds clear of Patten, who took second. Wooliscraft was third, a further six seconds off the pace.

Weber was the leading South African, finishing fourth in 19 minutes and 34 seconds.

By winning the open title for a sixth time, Payne equalled the record for the most victories by a women, which was previously held by Natasha Figge.

Interviewed on the slipway afterwards by South Africa’s former Olympic breaststroke champion Penny Heyns, Payne said of her victory: “It means so much to me. I was born in South Africa, lived in Joburg. We’d always come and do Midmar every year when I was a kid. Loved it.”

Chad Ho the men’s open champion

The men’s open race proved to be one of not only swimming ability, but also of tactics as the British swimmers adopted a line to the right of the course, while South Africa’s Heerden Herman and Chad Ho chose a line more to the left hand side.

Herman, with a lovely flowing stroke, took the early lead, with Britain’s David Davies, the fastest 1 500 metres swimmer in the field, and Alfie Howes pushing him. Unlike the women’s race, the field remained tight through the first 400 metres.

Herman, who was second in the 1 500 metres at last year’s Commonwealth Games, claimed the first hotspot at 400 metres, just ahead of Chad Ho, who had pulled up onto his feet.

Ho, the defending champion, was swimming incredibly strongly, a fact remarked upon by 18-time European champion Franziska van Almsick, who exclaimed: “Look, he’s not even kicking. Imagine if he was kicking!”

By 800 metres Ho had surged to the front. Across the way, British national coach Sean Kelly was waving his hands, urging his swimmers to pick up the pace as the South African star powered towards the finish.

At 1 200 metres it appeared that the gap Ho enjoyed over his nearest chasers had narrowed, but he possesses rare staying power and once again upped his stroke to move clear. The astuteness of Ho’s choice of line became clear as the course narrowed towards the finish and he enjoyed a clear lead.

To hearty roars from the crowd, Ho emerged from the water first and sprinted across the line to take victory in 18 minutes and 27 seconds. Britain’s Davies was second, 11 seconds later, with Howes in third in 18 minutes and 47 seconds, four seconds clear of Herman.

Slovernia’s Rok Kerin, who was ranked eighth in the 2010 Fina Open Water Grand Prix, placed seventh and was asked for his thoughts on the Midmar Mile after his first visit to the event. He described it as the “greatest” he has ever attended.

Looking back on his win, Ho said that after the first 400 metres: “I put my head down, caught up to Herman, just went for it and headed for home.”

Steve Munatones summed up the allure of the Midmar Mile brilliantly when he asked what a marathon runner says after completing a race. The answer will be: “I did it in” and the runner then says what time he/she did it in. For a Midmar Mile swimmer, the answer is “I did it!”.

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