5 February 2020 – Gail Bristow was just 14 years old when she lined up for her first aQuellé Midmar Mile. There was no medal waiting for her when she reached the other side of the dam, however. That’s because it was 1974, and women weren’t officially allowed to enter the race.
Plenty has changed since then, with over 12,000 instead of 150 swimmers set to line up for the 2020 edition of what’s grown into the world’s largest open water swimming event. Now 60, Bristow will still be one of them, though, as she competes for a 46th official and 47th unofficial year.
“I started the very first one in 1974. The girls weren’t allowed to swim, so a handful of us went along with our brothers and friends and we lined up at the start, but we didn’t get a medal,” she recalled. “Can you imagine anything more ridiculous? The girls were all unofficial, as they were at the Comrades Marathon and all those events back then.”
That all changed a year later after an uproar from the country’s female swimmers.
“So we lined up with our mates and swam it and that’s how it’s been ever since. I think part of the fun is that a lot of those same people – although they might not have made it every year – are still doing it, so I see a lot of my friends that I swam with as a teenager every year. It’s a really social event now. I’m not as competitive as I was. It’s all about the camaraderie and it’s a great event.”
Bristow represented both Natal and South Africa in the pool back in the day, although it was during the period of international isolation. She’s also claimed podium places in various age categories at the aQuellé Midmar Mile, and still competes in the pool at Masters level.
“We have quite a strong Masters team that travels all over to compete at World Championships, so I do still swim competitively, even though I turned 60 last year. It’s a lot of fun, it gives you some motivation, otherwise it’s easy just to get lazy.
“I think I have three world titles and our Cape Town team has six world relay records, so we are very competitive in that group, which is nice, because we grew up when we couldn’t compete internationally.”
Swimming has always played an important part in Bristow’s life.
“I grew up in KwaZulu-Natal and we used to swim at the Pinetown pool. My brother and all my friends swam, so I just kind of got into it like that, and we spent all our holidays at the pool. It’s what we did, and it’s what I’ve always done,” explained the recently retired teacher, who taught PE at St Mary’s in Kloof and then geography at Wynberg Girls’ High in Cape Town.
“The main thing for me is that on the second Sunday in February, I’ve been at Midmar for the last 47 years. It’s now a case of getting there. I always think the car might break down or the flight could be delayed. There’s always that possibility, so I feel very grateful that I’ve been able to make it every year. It’s just something I’ve added onto my calendar every year, which became a bit more challenging when I moved to Cape Town.”
Over the years she’s faced storms and choppy water, and had to wait for mist to lift to be able to make it across the dam, but Bristow’s most challenging race was last year, when she competed just a couple of months after undergoing a knee replacement.
“That was the only one I didn’t feel very confident of and wasn’t sure what was going to happen without the usual training,” she explained. “But I entered in the family race, not the main race, so my son and husband swam with me and I still managed it, but I was anxious about it.
“It’s a great event and it’s something I’ll try and keep doing for as long as I can do it,” added the only woman to have been there every year since 1974.