The Missed Turn: South African 12-Year-Old WR Setter Karen Muir Was Overlooked Star

Karen Muir

The Missed Turn: 12-Year-Old World-Record Setter Karen Muir Was Overlooked Star

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The Missed Turn highlights athletes from the past who did not receive their proper recognition, due to no fault of their own. In this second installment of the series, we examine the career of South African backstroker Karen Muir.

Mexico City should have been her stage. It should have offered her the opportunity for Olympic glory. It should have been the site of Karen Muir’s greatest accomplishment, the one accolade missing from the South African’s Hall of Fame career. Alas, the backstroke sensation could do nothing more than watch.

We’ve written before about the intersection of sports and politics, and the toxic reaction when they are mixed. In the case of Muir, the denial of an Olympic berth was connected to her homeland’s apartheid policies.

From 1964 through 1988, the International Olympic Committee banned South Africa from competing in the Games, due to the South African National Olympic Committee’s refusal to oppose apartheid practices. Among the athletes caught in the controversy was Muir, who was a rising star in the backstroke events.

Although she was not a factor to compete at the 1964 Olympics, the first Games in which South Africa was banned, she would have been a leading medal contender at the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. That potential was realized in August 1965 when Muir stunningly set a world record in the 110 yard backstroke—at the mind-boggling age of 12 years, 10 months and 25 days.

Racing at the British National Championships as an international invitee, Muir clocked 1:08.7, a global standard in a swim that was supposed to be an experience-supplying outing. Muir is recognized as the youngest world record holder in history.

“It has been a bit too much, and I still cannot really believe that I am the holder of the world record,” Muir said of her breakthrough performance. “It’s like something out of a fairytale. Everyone has been very kind and wonderful, but I am glad that the fuss is finished. Now all I want to do is to forget all the fuss and get back to my schoolwork.”

If Muir thought the hoopla surrounding her would subside, she was mistaken. The pre-teen world record set by the South African simply launched her into the spotlight, as she maintained a steady presence among the world’s elite for the remainder of the 1960s. Over the course of her career, additional world records arrived in the 100 and 200 meter backstrokes, along with the 110 and 220 yard backstrokes, the latter events still common for the era. More, she set a global mark in the 440 yard individual medley, an effort that was a testament to her multi-stroke talent.

Yet, for as much as Muir could control during training and her competitive forays, she did not have any influence on what took place in sporting offices around the world or on governmental decisions. Consequently, when the 1968 Olympics were held, Muir was missing, her absence a sad footnote in history.

At the time of the Games, she was the world record holder in the 100 and 200 meter backstroke. Obviously, Muir would have challenged for gold in both events, the titles ultimately going to American Kaye Hall (100) and the USA’s Pokey Watson (200). Canadian Elaine Tanner, a friend and rival of Muir’s, was the silver medalist in each race.

In 1969, in what could be deemed as her response to missing the 1968 Olympics, Muir broke Hall’s world record in the 100 backstroke, touching the wall in 1:05.6. The record endured for four years—until it was broken by East Germany’s Ulrike Richter, who was later found to be part of her country’s systematic doping program.

A 1980 inductee to the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Muir set 17 world records before retiring in 1970 at the age of 18. In 2013 at 60, she passed away after a battle with cancer.

“I’m heartbroken,” Tanner said of Muir’s death. “It’s like a piece of me has died, too. She was very quiet, very reserved. That was her nature. She let her performance speak for her.”

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dscott
1 month ago

I remember swimming at at least two US meets in which Karen broke the world record in the 200 LCM Backstroke. First, the 1966 US Summer Nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska and then the Los Angeles Invitational in the Summer of 1968. She was reserved and cute and about my age. I wasn’t the only guy to have a bit of a crush on her. While she was kept out of the biggest meet by politics (Olympics; there were no FINA World Championships for another 5 years, with the first one held in Belgrade in 1973), she did at least get to compete in numerous countries, leading to quite a cosmopolitan career. In addition to her world records in the then “co-official” 55 yard pool, she broke LCM World records in at least (then East) Germany and two different spots each in US, France and her South African home turf. A special athlete and person. Thanks for the memory spur.

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James Nickoloff
1 month ago
Reply to  dscott

I was there for the two meets you mention–AAU Nationals in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1966 and the LA Invitational in 1968–and remember the quiet Karen Muir too. This is such a sad story. I’ve just read that she became a physician and worked for decades in both Africa and Canada. Another great swimmer who was an even greater human being.

Jim Nickoloff

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Kathleen Tunnicliffe
1 month ago

I was at Blackpool watching in August 1965. I was only 13 myself and my friend was in the next lane to her. It was just a heat, a sensational performance

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Stephen Owen
1 month ago

What a legend! My twin sister and I were aspiring young backstrokers in the early stage of our swimming careers in South Africa. With my sister’s name also being spelt the same, of course Karen Muir was our inspiration and a superb role model.

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