Midmar Mile: the true spirit of sport

9 February 2009

South Africa’s Midmar Mile, the world’s largest open water swimming event, captured the true spirit of sport on the weekend. Where else would you find a field ranging from pre-teenagers to octogenarians, including both able-bodied and disabled swimmers, and led by world-class competitors?

The opening day of the 2009 Halfway Telkom Midmar Mile produced heart-warming scenes in the disabled category and family events, a world record-sized field in the non-company relay, and an opportunity for the big guns to learn about the course ahead of the big open races on the Sunday.

Conditions were ideal; the dam was at 100 percent capacity, with water flowing freely over the wall and the water ending only metres from the start and finish lines. The weather, too, played along. Some scattered clouds lined an otherwise beautiful blue canopy and hills featuring different shades of green surrounded the dam itself.

The first event of the day, the disabled category, as well as the Ironman Triathlon and Biathlon categories got proceedings off to a good start.

Better than the Ironmen

South African Paralympic ace Craig Groenewald showed strong form to win the disabled title, beating the first of the Ironman finishers for the twelfth time in 12 attempts at the Midmar Mile.

He was closely followed across the line by 2000 Sydney Olympics silver medal winner in the 200 metres breaststroke Terence Parkin. The deaf star allowed Groenewald to win as they both exited the water at the same time, but Parkin, knowing he had another seven mile-crossings ahead of him, graciously waved Groenewald ahead of him.

Parkin swam as part of the Game Charity Challenge Eight Mile Club. Each member of the club is required to raise at least R10 000 for charity and before the first event had even been swum the target of R1-million had already been bettered.

Humbling and inspiring

Further down the field, the sight of some athletes with severe handicaps was both humbling and inspiring.

Chad Gifford, who has no lower limbs, reached the finishing line where he was helped onto a board with four wheels beneath it. He then pulled himself across the timing mat.

Hendrik van der Merwe, a victim of polio, was lifted into his wheelchair at the finish by Sibusiso Mogale, whose arms end at the elbow. It was lump-in-the-throat stuff and a number of spectators shed a quiet tear.

The race featured a number of South African Paralympic stars, including Shireen Sapiro, who won a gold medal at the Beijing Olympics in a world record time in the 100 metres backstroke, and Tadgh Slattery, a long time Paralympic star and gold medal winner at that level, who was swimming at part of the eight-mile club.

Blind success

Mike “Buthy” Arbuthnot, one of the founders of the race and the only man to officially swim every Midmar Mile, assisted Neville Lawrence, a blind swimmer, to cross the dam. Arbuthnot and Felicity Kromhout swam backstroke either side of Lawrence to guide him in the right direction as he made his crossing.

The only other man to swim every Midmar Mile (although one of his crossings was an unofficial swim because he was representing South Africa at the World Masters Lifesaving Championships in New Zealand on the actual weekend of the race), Mike Pengelly, also made the mile.

Roy Rees was the oldest finisher at the age of 85 as he completed his tenth crossing. He first swam the race at the age of 75! Lorna Cochran, slightly younger, but also aged 85, was the oldest female swimmer.

In the second event, the company relay, Terence Parkin, a two-time winner of the main race, the men’s open event, was first across the finishing line in 21:59, which mirrored his time in the first race.

Gareth Fowler, the only three-time winner in the history of the Midmar Mile along with Ryk Neethling, finished second, while Brett Clark took third place.

World record achieved

The first of the Guinness Book of World Records attempts took place in event three, the non-company relay. The record for the most finishers in a single race stood at 3 070 and, with 3 400 starters, that mark was under threat. It duly fell as 3 110 swimmers completed the distance.

The race also offered an opportunity for some of the big guns to have a trial run ahead of Sunday’s feature events.

Germany’s Christian Reichert, a birthday boy, who had won the five-kilometre and 10-kilometre titles on the Thursday and Friday preceding the big weekend, edged Bryan Ryckeman for the win in a time of 20:20. They were followed across the line by South Africa’s Jasper Venter, who erred by taking a line too far to the left of the course.

South Africa’s Melissa Corfe was the first woman to finish, taking sixth place overall. Germany’s Nadine Pastor followed Corfe across the line.

Family relay

In Saturday’s final event, the family relay, defending men’s champion Shaun Dias led his family to victory over a stiff challenge from the Mower family. He was first across the line, followed by his brother Paul.

Kirsten Mower took third spot and her sister Courtney was fourth.

Gareth Dias finished fifth to ensure the Dias brothers won the title – the top three finishers times are added together to determine the winners – and Caitlyn Mower, the youngest of the sisters and still under-13, finished tenth to grab second place for her family.

The family race produced wonderful scenes with mothers, fathers, grandparents, and children all sharing in the magic of the event. Joy, the thrill of achievement, and family love were common themes in the smiles of the finishers.

Ryk and Natalie

The second day of competition saw the arrival of two of South African swimming’s favourite stars, Ryk Neethling and Natalie du Toit, who were seen graciously signing autographs and taking photographs with fans throughout the day, including with a team of nine Hungarian Olympians whose adulation of Neethling showed his status in the world of swimming.

There was a poignant moment that I personally witnessed when Tadgh Slattery quietly went up to race organiser Wayne Riddin and handed him his Team South Africa Paralympic tracksuit top, saying he wanted him to have it in thanks for including Slattery in the Midmar Mile.

The action in the water began with the girls’ 13-and-under category and the women’s 31-and-above events. As is the usually the case, the under-13 winner was the fastest swimmer in the event, with Michelle Weber taking victory in 21:53, two seconds clear of Juane du Plessis.

Former SA national lifesaver Stacey Bowley topped the 31 to 40 age group, but Heather Morris-Eyton, first in the 41 to 50 category, was fourth overall.

Rita Townsend, the mother of SA swimming star Darian Townsend, topped the 51 to 60s, while Bev Shuttleworth, like Townsend a long time star of the Midmar Mile, was first in the 61-and-over group.

Under-13s top over-30s

A superb swim by Brandon Murray saw him win the equivalent men’s race in 19:47 after he fended off a strong challenge from Henk Markgraaff, who finished second in 19:56, and topped the 31 to 40 age group.

Ross Leech led the way in the 41-50s, but Mike Semple was 26 seconds faster than Leech, even though he was contesting the 51-60 category. Geoff Grylls was the leading competitor in the 61-and-over age group.

Event number seven, the women’s 13 to 30 category produced outstanding racing of the highest order. The fact that eight of the top 10 finishers competed in the Beijing Olympics is testimony to this.

The leading swimmers were tightly bunched up to the 800 metres hot spot, after which they selected a number of different lines into the finish.

Experience tells

Johannesburg-born Kerri-Anne Payne, who represented Great Britain at the Beijing Olympic Games in the 10-kilometre open water swimming event and won the silver medal, used her experience from previous Midmar Miles to claim victory in 18:48. It was her fourth victory in the race.

Germany’s Nadine Pastor took second place, three seconds behind Payne, with Hungary’s Evaline Verralzto capturing third place.

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. Kathryn Meaklim, the winner of more races than any other woman in last year’s Fina World Cup Series, was sixth across the finishing line.

‘I’ve never seen anything like it’

Interviewed after the race, Germany’s Pastor, a first-time Midmar Mile competitor, was asked for her thoughts on event. “Honestly,” she said, “I’ve never seen anything like it: the number of swimmers, the crowds, the organisation, and the beautiful setting.”

Rounding off the weekend was the men’s 13 to 30 race and it, too, proved to be a humdinger.

SA Olympian Chad Ho made the early running, capturing the first two hot spots at 400 and 800 metres. Then, as had happened in the women’s race, the swimmers adopted different lines.

Side-by-side

South Africa’s Riaan Schoeman and David Verraszto managed to open the slightest gap on the chasing Ho and Germany’s Christian Reichert as they approached the finish. They exited the water side-by-side and dashed up the slipway. It was close. Extremely close.

It took 45 minutes, during which photos and film were reviewed, before Schoeman was declared the winner, with both men clocking 17:34.

Ho was third in 17:35, Reichert followed in 17:37, and Belgian Olympian Bryan Ryckeman ended fifth in 17:42. Defending champion Shaun Dias finished in seventh spot.

Class field

Among the top five, only Reichert didn’t compete in Beijing, but he did top the European open water rankings in 2008, as did his girlfriend, Nadine Pastor; once again, the class of the field was evident in the closely-contested and very fast racing.

The goal of achieving a world record for the largest overall event – made up of the total number of finishers from the eight events of the Midmar Mile – was also met.

In the next edition of the famous Guinness Book of World Records, the Midmar Mile will proudly occupy two entries.

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