South Africa's aQuellé Midmar Mile celebrated its 40th anniversary in style with an entry that beat its own world record, some remarkable competitors, top performances in the men's and women's open races, and beautiful weather and water conditions at the Midmar Dam in the KwaZulu-Natal midlands over the weekend.
The Midmar Mile currently holds the world record of 13 755 finishers, but that mark was bettered and will be put forward to the Guinness Book of World Records for ratification.
South Africa's London Olympic swimming head coach Graham Hill was in attendance and praised the event. "It's a South African tradition. It's a great event. Wayne Riddin and the Pietermaritzburg Seals Club put on a great event every year and it gets bigger every time around. It's great for swimming," he said.
Ashley Twichell became the first American winner in the history of the event when she scored a decisive victory over an under-prepared Keri-Anne Payne in the women's race, while Chad Ho notched up a record fourth consecutive win in the men's race. Even more than those two outstanding swimmers, though, the star of the weekend was another American, Craig Dietz.
Dietz has no limbs, but that has not held him back in life. A qualified lawyer and an avid participant in sports, he is especially adept as an open water swimmer, having successfully swum far greater distances than the mile. Being part of the world's largest open water swimming event, though, was a particular career highlight for him.
"It was great. There were so many people around and I've never done an event where there are so many people swimming around you, so I loved it," Dietz said after completing his Saturday swim in 37 minutes and 10 seconds. That meant he finished in the upper half of the field.
"You get bumped and kicked a couple times, but I'd rather have that than be out there by myself."
Unplanned second mile
Dietz enjoyed his swim so much, he returned for an unplanned second mile on the Sunday. His wife, Christy, talking from the boat of race director Wayne Riddin, remarked that it was great to get to see an event and the effect her husband Craig has on other people through their eyes.
Dietz has received official recognition for his inspirational performance on Saturday when he chosen as the winner of the Courage Trophy.
There was another remarkable performance from Lorna Cochran. She became the oldest ever finisher at the age of 89, bettering the record previously held by Colin Cable by four months. Widowed at 47, Cochran brought up seven children and they were all at the Midmar Dam to welcome her home when she broke the record.
Having taken up swimming in the Midmar Mile at the age of 74, it was Cochran's 15th Midmar Mile!
Chad Ho had become the first man ever to win the Midmar Mile three years in succession in 2012 and he further improved on that record in 2013 with yet another victory. He was chased hard by London Olympian Troy Prinsloo, but Prinsloo conceded: "I tried to chase Chad. I tried to pass him, but he just had better speed than me today."
As he had done in previous years, Ho reached the first hotspot at 400 metres in the lead to take the cash bonus. He also picked up the money at 800 and 1 200 metres.
With 400 metres remaining, in a well-rehearsed move, he kicked hard for the finish and there was no stopping him. Thanks to a late sponsorship from 5-Hour Energy, which doubled the winner's prize money last week, Ho claimed the R10 000, plus an additional R4 800 from the hotspots.
After dedicating his win to his recently deceased grandmother, Ho said: "I knew I had some good speed coming into the race. I've been doing a lot of speed work in training, so if I was in the front I could kick down and take it to the finish."
Danie Marais, like Ho and Prinsloo, a 10km open water specialist, pushed Prinsloo all the way and took third place in 18 minutes and nine seconds, just one second behind Prinsloo.
In the women's race, Ashley Twichell used her narrow loss to seven-time champion Keri-Anne Payne in 2011 as motivation to go one better in 2012.
"That was definitely a lot of motivation," Twichell said after a convincing victory in 19 minutes and seven seconds, 15 seconds clear of Payne. "Last year was a really close race and I got touched out in a few big races. So, I was trying to get far enough ahead because I didn't want it to be a close finish."
Like Ho, she dominated her race, but had to share the first hotspot's prize money with pool star, Hungary's Katinka Hosszu, who was competing in her first open water swim.
Payne, who had started training in November after taking a break following the London Olympics, admitted she had been underdone, but was gracious in defeat. "It was good. It was fun. That's exactly why I wanted to come out here," she said.
'I really enjoyed it'
"I do think I took the right line, kind of split from the pack. I managed to get a little bit of a better line into the finish. Towards the end I was trying to catch Ashley. I was just a bit too far off and I kept weaving. But it was good. I really enjoyed it."
Junior world champion over five kilometers, Michelle Weber, was the top South African finisher, in third place. A former two-time champion in the 13-and-under category, she was thrilled with her performance, especially as she had duked it out with big guns, like Twichell, Payne and Hosszu, who was fourth in her first competitive open water race.
Hosszu commented: "It was pretty fun. I liked it a lot. It's definitely completely different to the pool. I think I need a lot more experience in the open water."
Winner of two events
Darian Townsend, an Olympic gold medal winner in the Athens Olympics, swam the Midmar Mile for the first time in a decade. A member of the organising club, Pietermaritzburg Seals, he was a surprising winner - given that he usually swims shorter distances - of the Non-Company relay and was also the first man out of the water in a special event organised to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Maritzburg College.
Fellow College old boy, Mike "Buthy" Arbuthnot, the founder of the Midmar Mile, swam in the school's race on the Saturday and the age group race on Sunday to take his tally of Midmar Mile crossings to 80 at the age of 80. Arbuthnot is the only person in the history of the event to have officially swum in every edition of it.
"It's a helluva relief," he laughed about reaching the milestone of 80 at 80. "It was very nice out there, and yesterday too, so it's been a lucky weekend."
Most Midmar Miles by a woman
Gail Bristow made the long drive from Cape Town to swim in the Midmar Mile for a 39th time. She did it unofficially in the very first year the event was held in 1974, but that first year women were not officially accepted as entrants.
Bristow completed her swim in a fast 26 minutes and 46 seconds. "Perfect conditions, it was very, very flat. There were lots of little girls kicking around me, but it was a lovely swim," she said.
After all the years of coming back to the Midmar Mile, Bristow admitted that it still excites her. "I still get the same butterflies, the same nerves, thinking gosh it's so far when I stand on the other side and look across the dam."
The Midmar Mile, as has become the norm, served as a popular vehicle to raise funds for charity.
The Eight Mile Club, in which swimmers take part in all eight miles, backed a variety of charities, while Game, which had over 300 swimmers, donated R1 000 per swimmer to the Community Chest.
The Pink Drive, which is focused on breast cancer, was well supported, with their swimmers standing out in their pink costumes.
Olympic champion and world record holder Cameron van der Burgh teamed up with fellow breaststroke star Neil Versfeld to cross the dam doing breaststroke in a fast 30 minutes and six seconds. Van der Burgh, through Nivea, raised funds for the Cancer Association of South Africa.
Chad Ho dominated the men's race at the aQuellé Midmar Mile, winning it for a record fourth year in succession (Photo: Anthony Grote, Gameplan Media)