7 February 2023 – Many champions have graced the podium in the 50-year history of the aQuellé Midmar Mile and numerous characters have emerged as stalwarts of the iconic event.
One such swimmer, who has gone somewhat under the radar despite her enormous success, is Rita Townsend.
The 66-year-old is the mother of 2004 Olympic relay champion and former world record-holder Darian Townsend but has also notched up an impressive record of her own.
The Pietermaritzburg swimmer first competed in the aQuellé Midmar Mile in 1981, when she and husband Ted moved to the city.
They didn’t return to the event until the 1990s though, once their children were older, and Townsend then began her triumphant run at Midmar. Her age group victories have spanned a remarkable four decades (three in the 31-40 category, seven in the 41-50, eight in the 51-60s and three so far in the 61-70s).
Victory wasn’t necessarily Townsend’s main motivation over the years, however. “I enjoy keeping fit and following a healthy lifestyle,” she explained. “Swimming is the easiest way for me to exercise. My main aim is to keep healthy and keep the bulges at bay but I don’t have the time to put in the mileage that I would like to.”
Much of Townsend’s time is taken up by teaching and coaching others and many a young Pietermaritzburg swimmer has come through her ranks.
“As a swimming teacher and coach at junior school level, I am hugely satisfied when I have instilled a love of swimming in the children I teach who go on to swimming competitively at club level or enjoy participating in our Midmar Mile,” she said.
“Competitive swimming keeps youngsters constructively busy, away from too much TV and computer games, and off the streets. Swimming at Midmar Dam and the beach over the weekends were our go-to places when our children were growing up.”
Asked what brings her back to the event each year, Townsend explained: “Partly because Midmar is right on our doorstep but mainly because [race director] Wayne Riddin puts on such a spectacular swimming event each year. It becomes an exciting event to take part in and for spectators to be there. Also, it is a great opportunity to catch up with old friends and swimmers from all over the country.”
As for the chances of winning a 22nd age group title this weekend, Townsend admits she isn’t too certain.
“I’m not terribly confident of winning this year. I didn’t win it last year. I’ve never actually won an entire decade. As you get to the top of a decade, you’re racing against people much younger than yourself… that’s how it happens. I don’t always win and that’s ok.
“This year I think I’m just going to be happy to get on the podium because I know there are a lot of good swimmers out there that are actually better swimmers than myself… the bottom line is – do your best on the day and hope you swim the straightest line so that you don’t swim any extra metres. I’m pretty sure there’ll be stiff competition out there with this being the 50th anniversary of the Midmar Mile so I’m looking forward to seeing a whole bunch of blasts from the past and we’ll see how it goes on the day.”
The aQuellé Midmar Mile takes place from 9-12 February 2023 at Midmar Dam in KwaZulu-Natal. Online entries are now closed. Those still wishing to swim can enter on the day at the dam but should arrive two hours before their race. For more details, head to www.midmarmile.co.za