‘You lily-livered, knock-kneed, yellow-bellied, flat-footed, flaznaggled, bog-trotting ape. You are a university student and your mind’s a blank.’
Cecil Colwin was as well-known for his repertoire of insults as his ability to produce swimming champions. South Africa’s first full-time swim coach, Cecil’s career spanned three continents and almost 70 years, during which he trained Olympic medallists and a world record holder. He wrote numerous texts on swimming technique and is regarded as a pioneer of the sport.
During the winters of 1957-1959, my siblings worked out with Cecil’s squad at Johannesburg’s Hillbrow pool. He became a peer to my mother, giving her training schedules to use back home. She would go on to coach her own squad in Cape Town.
Cecil was not without his critics. I remember an incident at Hillbrow, circa 1957. He was barking at my sister. I walked up to the great man, pointed a finger at him and famously uttered the words, ‘you don’t tell.’ I’m told that he had the grace to smile.
Hillbrow pool was a subterranean venue at the bottom of a flight of stairs and, for many years, Johannesburg’s only winter training venue. It was 25 yards long by about 20 yards wide, a configuration no doubt dictated by the available space. I learned to swim there in a small open-topped ‘cage’ which had been hitched to one side of the pool. The cage had netting on three sides and on its floor, allowing a view to the bottom of the pool but with the security of knowing that one couldn’t sink below the level of the net. Flo Elliott, a learn-to swim-instructor whose son trained in Cecil’s squad, gave me the confidence to let go of the net and take my first freestyle strokes in that cage. I was four years’ old.
In 1966 Cecil set up a summer swim camp at Bethlehem, a Free State town with an outdoor 50-metre pool. The accommodation was a row of self-contained villa units set on Loch Athlone, a recreational lake which was also the town’s water supply. A cement replica of the Athlone Castle, a passenger liner in the Union Castle fleet, was permanently moored on the lake; the ‘ship’ had a number of restaurants and cafés, and a ‘gangplank’ connecting it to land. I attended two of these camps and remember them for Cecil’s constant reference to Newton’s Third Law of Motion – ‘for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction’ – to demonstrate the hand recovery in backstroke; and the tireless efforts of his wife, Margaret, in providing wholesome food to a bunch of kids who would rather have had burgers from the Athlone Castle. I don’t remember ever having been sworn at, which I take to have meant that I’d been assessed as non-champion material.
Cecil left South Africa in 1971. He spent two years coaching in Australia before being headhunted to a top swimming position in Canada in 1973. He remained there until his death in 2012, aged 85. His son, Robert, whom I remember as a tousle-haired toddler from the Bethlehem camp days, described how he sat with his close-to-death father in an Ottawa hospice and watched as ‘…(he) raised up (his arm) from under the covers and started to practice a freestyle entry! I must tell you it was still flawless.’
As more suitable indoor pools were built in Johannesburg, Hillbrow fell out of fashion as a squad training venue. For a while it was used by the Summit Club, the first multiracial strip club in South Africa. A photo taken in 1971, from the Club’s all-white period, is the last record of Hillbrow pool I’ve been able to find.
The pool’s fate is something of a mystery. It is not mentioned among the venues listed on the Summit Club’s website. My Johannesburg contacts don’t know what’s become of it. Last week I fired off a query to the three communications and marketing contacts listed on Johannesburg City Council’s website; if I ever hear from any of them, I’ll update this post.
I became a good, but not a great swimmer. I put my ordinariness down to a combination of some talent and not nearly enough fire in the belly. But I’ve never regretted the training, the trips and the lifelong friendships forged through swimming. Or the self-discipline that the sport gave me.
 Thanks to my friend, Marissa Rollnick, for expanding this list.