World 10km champion Sharon van Rouwendaal lived up to her billing as the pre-race favourite while Connor Buck claimed a second straight men’s title at the aQuellé Midmar Mile on Sunday.
The Netherlands’ Van Rouwendaal, who was visiting South Africa for the first time to take part in the world’s largest open-water swimming event dominated the women’s race from the start.
While she had four-time champion Ashley Twichell of the USA on her feet for much of the race, Van Rouwendaal had plenty in the tank to take the win in 18 minutes 40 seconds.
Twichell, who was back at the race after the birth of her first child, was second in 18:44 with defending Midmar champion Stephanie Houtman the first South African home in 19:29 for third place.
“I was already challenged in the first 100 or 200m so I thought I need to get out of here and find the position in front and then just control whether people were trying to pass or not,” said Van Rouwendaal, who claimed Olympic marathon swimming gold in 2016 and silver in 2021.
“Then I think around halfway I turned on my back and I saw there was only one person [close by] and I saw it was Ashley so I knew I had to be careful… when I saw the finish, I thought I’d build it up a little bit to get the win.”
Speaking about swimming the much shorter distance of a mile rather than her usual 10km, the Dutch star added: “It’s interesting because you have to start fast and then you’re hurting a little bit. Then you have to sit on a comfortable speed and you have to build up again so it’s very good to race something like this… I’m really happy I came here and experienced this.”
Houtman admitted: “It felt like a very different race to last year. In the beginning it was very cramped and then towards halfway I finally got my space and I just swam. I saw there were a few people in the front but I didn’t actually know I came third when I came out. I was kind of shocked. I thought I was fourth or fifth or something so I’m very chuffed.”
BUCK DOES IT AGAIN
Meanwhile, the men’s race had a familiar feel to it as defending champion Connor Buck stormed to the front and then swam way to the right of the rest of the field, just like he did a year ago.
The Durban swimmer managed to get himself back on track though and still won the race in a speedy 17:39, just 38 seconds off the men’s record.
Pretoria’s Henré Louw was almost a minute back, finishing second in 18:34 with Buck’s 17-year-old training partner Brendan Visser springing a surprise in his first Midmar Mile by emerging from the unseeded swimmers and taking third place in the sprint finish in 18:50, a fraction ahead of Ross Hartigan.
“My sighting wasn’t very good,” admitted Buck afterwards. “I’m a little bit colour blind so trying to see the orange buoys against the grass doesn’t really work. I had to just try and look for the white tent at the finish the whole time.
“Coming into the race, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. You never know what’s happening with the currents and conditions on the day. I was just aiming to swim as fast as I possibly could and hope for the best, so it feels good.”
The men’s 13 and under and 31 and older category produced a thrilling finish, with several swimmers in various age categories all battling each other right to the finish line.
Among the pack was 1977 Midmar champion Paul Blackbeard, who claimed top spot in the 61-70 category in a time of 21:06.
“It was nice swimming all together like that. The competitive thing comes out in all of us,” said Blackbeard. “I had Covid recently though so towards the end my lungs weren’t working for the sprint. I started sprinting too early but it was a good swim.”
1996 women’s champion Sheona Lottering also battled with illness this past week before claiming victory in the 41-50 category.
“I had the start of pneumonia on Thursday so I just got pumped full of antibiotics and did what I could to get to this point and was hoping to just do my best today,” she said after crossing the line in a speedy 22:27.
“It’s nice to come back for the 50th anniversary and get my name on a trophy again.”
Both completing their 49th Midmar Miles on Sunday were Gail Bristow, who finished in 27:18 and Martin Godfrey, who finished in 30:23, which meant he beat the 2023 times of the two swimmers who finished in front of him at the first-ever Midmar Mile back in 1974, Trevor Strydom and Owen Ryan.
“Another one under the belt. Every year it gets a little harder but it’s a nice crowd, a nice vibe at the start, everyone was very enthusiastic,” said Bristow. “This year has been extra special because so many people have come in [for the 50th anniversary of the race] and I’m seeing people I haven’t seen for 40 years so it’s really been wonderful.”
Godfrey added: “I trained harder because I wanted to have a good time this year. I decided I was going to do well and the only way to do well is to train hard… it’s a great event, I’m glad to be part of it, bring on next year.”
FISH JOINS THE FUN
Meanwhile, thousands more recreational swimmers made their way across the famous KwaZulu-Natal dam on Sunday. Among them was former Bafana Bafana soccer star Mark Fish, who completed his sixth aQuellé Midmar Mile.
“It’s not only the scenery but it’s the different cultures, the different shapes and sizes of people that are swimming, I think that makes this a fantastic event and well done to everyone. I can’t wait to be back next year,” said the 1996 African Cup of Nations champion.
Fish was swimming with his 12-year-old daughter, Isabella.
“Today was a bit tougher than last year but I was very fortunate to rope in my daughter,” he said. “Today she was the one swimming in front of me so she was the one to pull me through.”
Sunday’s action was the final day of a memorable weekend of 50th anniversary celebrations for the aQuellé Midmar Mile, with numerous previous champions, founders and others flocking to the dam for the occasion.
MAIN EVENT RESULTS:
1. Sharon van Rouwendaal 18:40
2. Ashley Twichell 18:44
3. Stephanie Houtman 19:29
4. Tory Earle 19:42
5. Samantha Randle 19:52
6. Carli Antonopoulos 19:58
7. Sash Corris 19:59
8. Callan Lotter 19:59
9. Amica de Jager 20:00
10. Michelle Weber 20:03
1. Connor Buck 17:39
2. Henré Louw 18:34
3. Brendan Visser 18:50
4. Ross Hartigan 18:50
5. Chad La Tourette 18:52
6. Joshua Ashley 18:55
7. Matthew Caldwell 18:55
8. Jeandre Kleynhans18:56
9. Damien Angel 19:09
10. Reece Zowitsky 19:11