Masters Mike “Buthie” Arbuthnot, 87, & Gail Bristow, 60, Make 47th Annual Return To Midmar Mile

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Gail Bristow, 60, & Midmar founder Mike “Buthie” Arbuthnot, 87, are the only two swimmers to have raced the biggest participation mile swim in the world at all 47 events since 1974

While much has changed over 47 years of aQuellé Midmar Mile history, there has been one constant throughout, and that’s the presence of Mike “Buthie” Arbuthnot and Gail Bristow.

Now 87, Mike Arbuthnot was one of the founders of the famous race back in 1974, and remains the only swimmer to have officially competed each year. Mike Pengelly has swum 45 officially and one unofficially.

And then there is Gail Bristow, whose participation in 1974 wasn’t counted, as women weren’t allowed to officially enter yet. So what, thought 14-year-old Bristow – before taking the plunge. At 60 years of age – she’s back for more as part of the throng of thousands who will make the waters of Midmar Dam bubble and boil with action this weekend. The race includes elite, world-class swimmers and right along the spectrum to fitness and fun.

Bristow’s first swim was unofficial. Wrong gender. Times change.  In 2020, more than 12,000, instead of the 150 swimmers of 1974, will line up for what’s grown into the world’s largest open water swimming event. Now 60, Bristow says:

“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 her youth  although it was during the period of international isolation over apartheid. She’s also claimed podium places in various age categories at the 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.”

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Gail Bristow back for a 47th Midmar Mile in 2020 – Photo Courtesy: Jetline Action Photo

Swimming has always played an important part in Bristow’s life. She explains: “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.”

Recently retired from teaching, including PE at St Mary’s in Kloof and then geography at Wynberg Girls’ High in Cape Town, Bristow said:

“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.”

Beloved ‘Buthie’ lines up once more

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Midmar Mile founder Mike “Buthie” Arbuthnot – ready for his 47th swim since it all began in 1974. Photo Courtesy: Jetline Action Photo

Mike “Buthie” Arbuthnot was there at the founding of the Midmar Mile. Now 87, he’s back for the 2020 swim – and intends to be back every year until his days are done.

“I keep coming back as I have done all of them, and would like to continue that record until my time here is done,” he said from his home in Howick, just a few kilometres from the Midmar Dam. Then the quip:

“There are a number who are catching up and are hoping I will give up so they can pass my record, but I’m hoping that does not happen for now.”

Arbuthnot explained that among the reasons for the inception of the first ever Midmar Mile was the fact that a bunch of water polo players couldn’t afford a new ball:

“I was an avid water polo player and was part of the Seals team. Seals Club could not pay for a new water polo ball, which our team needed, as the team had to provide a ball for league games, so that was one of the motivating factors to start the Midmar Mile – to raise funds to buy a ball. The Glenwood water polo players’ team swam that first year and threw the water polo ball to each other the whole way across.

He added: “After the first race was so successful, more swimmers started joining year after year, and now it’s a big race – the largest open water swim in the world.

“There was no electricity in the beginning, so times had to be done with a stopwatch and written down by hand. For years the finish would have long queues of people giving their names while standing in line, waist deep in the water. Things have changed a lot in the race, and in the world at large since that inaugural race in February 1974.”

After the success of the first year, Arbuthnot said there were a few issues with holding the next one at Midmar, and there were thoughts of moving the race to Durban.

“The port captain said, surprisingly: ‘This is a commercial shipping port, we can’t have little girlies flapping around on their lilos.’ So that was the end of that,” he recalled.

Against The Odds Along Years Of Swim History

In later years, the celebrated event founder has faced some serious ill health, but that’s never kept him from the dam. His daughter, Tracy Arbuthnot, who will be swimming alongside her father this year, explained: “He had colon cancer and a major operation 14 years ago, and he underwent chemotherapy. He had skin cancer four years ago. During an operation, he had a brain aneurysm and nearly died, and he had a stroke in October 2019.

“He has been slightly compromised, however he feels that in the face of all this, it is his overall swimming health that has seen him overcome and live such a long and overall healthy life. That and a few beers.”

Sure enough, she said her father is raring to go for the 2020 edition of the race.

“Tony Bath swims with Dad every year and has been so kind to ensure he is safe and on the right direction to the finish line. His father, Mike Bath, a previous President of Seals Swimming Club, is one of Dad’s very good friends. My daughter, Victoria Bax, is doing the race too. She struggles with dyslexia and swimming Midmar has helped her to feel a part of something that is positive and healthy. My brother, Grant Arbuthnot, is also doing Midmar this year. We felt we wanted to swim with Dad this year, so the three of us are coming up from Cape Town.”

It turns out swimming has been a life-changing pursuit for the entire family, she continued. “Dad is very grateful to his mother, Florence Miller Arbuthnot, who encouraged his outdoor pursuits. She died when he was eight years old, and he then lived with his best friend, Tony Brokensha, and Tony’s aunt and uncle, Joan and Rowe English. Joan signed Dad up to become a member of Seals Swimming Club at age 9, so she started him on this journey. She was hugely supportive of him and he is forever thankful for her love, support and guidance. Dad also met his wife, Yvonne Geyser, at Alexandra Swimming Pool in Pietermaritzburg. He was swimming for Seals and saw her at the pool, so swimming and Seals has defined most of his life.”

Grateful for what the sport has given him and now looking back 47 years, Buthie could not have imagined what a massive event the Midmar Mile would become.

“I’m just thrilled and happy that it has been such a success, and that it helps to promote healthy outdoors for many youngsters who are otherwise sitting on computers indoors.”

Current race organiser, Wayne Riddin, commented: “Our thanks go to Buthie for starting and growing this great event all those years ago. We wish him well as he takes part in an incredible 47th aQuellé Midmar Mile this year. He really is an example to us all.”

 

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