Karen Muir went from an unknown schoolgirl to global sporting fame in less than 69 seconds.
The unheralded athlete shocked the sports establishment in 1965 by swimming a 110-yard backstroke in 1 minute, 8.7 seconds, a women’s world record. The record seemed all the more unlikely for having been set in a heat for girls. She was only 12 years old.
The prodigy was hailed as the youngest to have set a world record in any sport.
“Now all I want to do is to forget all the fuss and get back to my schoolwork,” she said at the time.
She would be credited with 17 world records in a brief but spectacular five-year competitive swimming career, though one ambition was forever beyond her grasp. The young South African was barred from competing in the Olympics owing to her country’s policy of racial apartheid. She retired while still a teenager.
She became a doctor, practising in Africa before moving to Canada in 2000. She was a popular and well-liked family practitioner in Vanderhoof in the British Columbia Interior. Dr. Muir, who was diagnosed with breast cancer four years ago, died on April 2 in her native South Africa. She was 60.
An unassuming but intense competitor, the quiet, freckle-faced athlete with icy blue eyes cared little for the public glare. Sportswriters described her as “shy, sensitive” and, unkindly, as “solemn and rather gawky.” They called the thin, “leggy” swimmer the Timid Torpedo.
For several years, her great rival in the pool was Elaine Tanner, the teenage swimming sensation from Canada who was older by 18 months. The pair contested and exchanged world record titles in one of the sport’s great rivalries.
“I’m heartbroken,” Ms. Tanner said when informed of her rival’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.”
Karen Yvette Muir was born on Sept. 16, 1952, to a doctor and his wife at Kimberley, the diamond centre and a provincial capital in South Africa.
The Grade 5 student at Diamantveld Laerskool (Diamond Fields primary school) was thrust into the spotlight at the British national championship swim meet on Aug. 10, 1965.
Karen had travelled to England to gain experience in international competition and was not regarded by the South African entourage as a medal hopeful. It was thought she needed to do work on her turns, which were slow and awkward.
In a heat for the girls’ 110-yard event, she gained an eight-yard margin on her closest competitor by the midway point. She touched the wall in world-record time, shaving eight-tenths of a second off the previous world mark, set by Linda Ludgrove of Britain only a fortnight earlier.
Karen Muir was 12 years, 10 months, 25 days old; it was a stunning achievement for one so young. The crowd at the Derby Baths in Blackpool roared their approval for the precocious swimmer.
Beneath the stands, a young Elaine Tanner was surprised by the tumult.
“It sounded like a stampede up there,” she recalled. “I thought, ‘Who would break a world record in an age-group event? Oh my god, who is this girl?’ ”
The world asked the same question. In the race of a lifetime, she had knocked more than two seconds – an eternity in the pool – off her previous best time.
The taciturn athlete faced gauntlets of reporters in Britain and at home, a tribulation that left her in tears.
“It has been a bit too much and I still cannot really believe that I am holder of the world record,” she told the Sunday Times of Johannesburg in her homeland. “It’s like something out of a fairy tale. Everyone has been very kind and wonderful but I am glad that the fuss is finished.”
She could not have been more mistaken. The South African remained in the headlines for the next five years, as she rewrote the backstroke book, setting new imperial and metric standards. The schoolgirl lowered the world record in the 110- and 220-yards, as well as in the 100- and 200-metres. At one point, she held the world record in all four of those lengths. She also set the standard for the 440-yard individual medley.
Meanwhile, Miss Tanner was also setting world records in the backstroke. She established a mark of 1:07.1 in the 100-metres backstroke at the Pan American Games in Winnipeg in 1967, only to have the South African better it the following year.
The final world mark set by Ms. Muir in 1969 of 1:05.6 would last more than four years before being bettered by Ulrike Richter of East Germany. (Many years later, officials confessed in German court to having administered performance-enhancing drugs to Ms. Richter and other East German swimmers.)
At a swim meet in Vancouver in 1966, Ms. Tanner and Ms. Muir were named joint holders of a world record in the 220-yard individual medley. The race featured the oddity of judges determining Ms. Tanner had finished first, while timers recorded Ms. Muir touching the wall one-10th of a second faster. Under international rules, the record was shared, based on average times.
“That’s fine by me,” Ms. Tanner said after the race.
“That’s okay,” Ms. Muir agreed.
The Canadian travelled to South Africa with three other swimmers early in 1968 to compete in a 17-day tour of invitational meets against her “friendly rival” at Bloemfontein, Kimberley and Cape Town.
By the time she was 15, the young South African stood 5 foot 7 with a physique so lean she was called Bamboo. Her Canadian rival, nicknamed Mighty Mouse, stood barely five feet tall.
“We looked like Mutt and Jeff together,” Ms. Tanner said recently.
In April, 1968, the International Olympic Committee withdrew an invitation to South Africa to compete at the Summer Games in Mexico City. The teen swimmer had been touted as a possible Olympic gold medalist. Instead, she was forced to skip the competition, during which her Canadian counterpart gained a pair of silvers and a bronze medal.
Ms. Muir retired from the pool in 1970, shortly after her 18th birthday. She enrolled at the University of the Free State at Bloemfontein, graduating in 1977 with a medical degree. She practised medicine in South Africa for two decades before moving with her physician husband to Leader, Sask., in 2000, soon after relocating to Vanderhoof, a district municipality of about 4,500 in B.C.’s Nechako Valley.
“Canada seemed like a good option work-wise,” her son, Jan, said.
She established a family practice in Vanderhoof and was also associated with a cancer clinic that opened at St. John Hospital in 2008. She received her own diagnosis of breast cancer the following year.
In 2010, she wrote a thank-you letter to the local Omineca Express newspaper after a round of treatment. “I have never experienced support like this before,” she wrote. “I am thrilled to be in good health, back home and at work again.”
Newspapers in South Africa reported she died at her sister’s home at Mossel Bay, South Africa. The pages of Afrikaans-language newspapers were filled with tributes to “die Suid-Afrikaanse swemlegende.”
She leaves daughters Ann-Mari Joyce, Karike Human and Marietjie de Graad, all of South Africa; a son, Jan de Graad, of Vancouver; a granddaughter, Jenna Joyce; and sisters Linda van der Linde and Liana Barrett, both of South Africa. She also leaves her husband, Dr. Gerben de Graad, of Peace River, Alta., from whom she was separated.
Dr. Muir rarely spoke of her swimming exploits, not even to friends with whom she joined in a team endurance competition.
“Karen never said anything about it,” said Claire Radcliffe, a friend. “She would never, ever think of bragging. It was never about her.”
In 1980, Dr. Muir was inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame at Fort Lauderdale, Fla., the first South African swimmer to receive the honour. She has also been enshrined in the South African Sports and Arts Hall of Fame. As well, the pool in her hometown of Kimberley bears her name.
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