‘You lily-livered, knock-kneed, yellow-bellied, flat-footed, flaznaggled, bog-trotting ape.  You are a university student and your mind’s a blank.’[1]

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.[2]

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.’[3]

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.


Goldblatt, D. 2010. TJ: Johannesburg photographs 1948-2010.











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.

[1]              Thanks to my friend, Marissa Rollnick, for expanding this list.

[2]              http://www.ishof.org/cecil-colwin-02.html; http://swimhistory.org/articles/item/95-cecil-colwin

[3]              https://www.swimmingworldmagazine.com/news/passages-cecil-colwin-85/


2 thoughts on “Swimming

  1. Loved this Rose! It must have been freezing training in Jhb in winter and I’m fascinated by the story of training in Bethlehem’s dam. It’s the last place on earth I would ever associate with swimming.

    • Thanks Jacqui. We trained at the outdoor 50m pool, which is not immediately obvious from the way I’ve written the sentence. We probably did muck around in the lake, though, to cool off.

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