30 Oct 1929 – 22 Dec 2018
Swimming in Nationals at Hillcrest this year was a particularly emotional experience for Don. It was in 1945, 73 years ago, that at the age of 16 he had burst onto the SA swimming scene in this very same pool.
And there he was aged 89, he hadn’t swum for a couple of years, he had been diagnosed with cancer and he’d been receiving monthly chemo since last August. He’d lost 30 kgs and was feeling vrot and things didn’t look good.
But talking swimming again to old friend Anne Jones who had been visiting him in hospital, somehow sparked something inside him and with Anne’s steady encouragement and help he decided to swim again and against all odds had entered and was actually competing at nationals.
Don had joined masters in 1996 in Nelspruit– egged on by his American based brother Graham, a highly rated master swimmer home for a visit. He has been a regular participant at Nationals since then and in fact received his 20 Year Award this year.
Don swam in three events, 50 m back and free and 100m free. There were three competitors in his age group and he won a gold, a silver and a bronze. In addition, he won the award for the Oldest Competitor. An unexpected and very pleasing haul. And a marvellous demonstration of the determination and grit of a true champion.
But what about the back story? So, what happened in 1945, I asked Don.
“I was living in Bloem with my folks and brother Graham. My dad was superintendent of the public baths and we had free swims – everyone else had to pay a penny for the early session and a tickey for the late one. So we swam a lot.
“When I was chosen to swim for the Free State in the SA championships I hadn’t had much experience. The furthest we ever swam was 200 yards. So in my first race, which was the 220 yards, I decided to just stick with Terry Collard the current champ for as long as possible – but when it came to the 4th length I was still with him so I just gave it hell and I beat him.
“Now when it came to the 440, Peter Elliot gave me a bit of advice. He said that he’d heard ‘they’ were going to trick me by sending one of them out very fast to tire me out so that Terry could then catch me up and win. So, I was wise to that and I beat him – and then the 880 was easy for me. But the 110 was his. I was never a sprinter.”
So, the 220, 440 and 880 titles were all won by the boy from Bloem.
“When I got back home, I told my parents I wouldn’t go to school that day – but they wouldn’t hear of it. Very reluctantly I dragged myself off, only to find that there was a surprise assembly of the whole school and my parents stood proudly on the stage next to my three huge silver cups – and I got my full colours there and then. Something that had never happened before.”
That was 1945 and in 1948 Don was chosen to swim at the Olympic Games in London one of three South Africans so honoured. Quite a story.
He will be missed by his friends and family in both Phoenix and the wider SA Masters swimming community.