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Gail Bristow at the finish of her 49th Midmar Mile in 2023. PIcture: ACTION PHOTO SA
Gail Bristow at the finish of her 49th Midmar Mile in 2023. PIcture: ACTION PHOTO SA

What does someone who is about to swim their 50th Midmar Mile open-water challenge do to make it memorable? Well, in Gail Bristow’s case they decide that not even eight is enough!

Yes, Bristow, who swam her first Midmar Mile at the age of 14, is putting back into the water so much more that she got out of it.

So on Thursday and Friday she planned to swim four Midmar Miles on both days and then her main race this Sunday, the first eight being in aid of charity.

Born in Scotland in 1959, Bristow and family moved to KwaZulu-Natal when she was six.

“We lived in Pinetown and we spent all our free time and holidays at the pool in Lahee Park. I made friends at the pool, many of whom still swim with me now,” says Bristow who now lives on the waterside at Zeekoevlei in Cape Town, where she has also taken up rowing as an additional sport.

She doesn’t come from an open-water background though. She was a star breaststroker in the pool and at 16 made the national senior team. But international sanctions meant that she was denied the chance to compete at both the 1976 and 1980 Olympic Games.

“After my international career ended I got into master’s grade swimming in KwaZulu-Natal when I was about 25 with the likes of Paul Blackbeard and have been doing masters ever since.”

Masters have given her the chance to shine that the Olympics never did. “I’ve been to six world championships now and have been fortunate enough to win three world titles — in Kazan, Russia in 2016 when I won the 200 and 400m freestyle and 200m breaststroke events.”

She also picked up six world relay records in that period and to this day still swims with the Cape Town-based members of that squad.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing though and she’s had to deal with family trauma during that time. “My brother Dave was a very good triathlete and won the second ever Durban Iron Man event in 1984.

“Tragically, he had a bad cycling accident in 1988 — hit by a truck while riding with his wife and her brother — and passed away from his injuries.”

But the McCarney genes still live on, and thrive. “My son Stuart is a fantastic athlete. He was in the SA canoe sprint team but didn’t see a future in SA and is now part of the British sprint team getting ready for this season.”

In fact, Stuart is the only reason her landmark which, she’ll presumably achieve this weekend, hasn’t featured 50 consecutive Midmar Miles.

“He was born in 1996 and because I’d moved down to Cape Town by that stage, I was unable to fly because it was too close to his birth. If I was still living in KZN I would definitely have driven to the venue and maintained the streak.”

So what exactly keeps her going back, year after year since 1974?

“It’s just always been there... I can clearly remember that day back in 1974. I think there were probably only about 150 swimmers there, and mostly from Pinetown and surrounds, more like a fun event with friends and family.”

Most definitely an era from times gone by?

“It was so long ago that the girls/women didn’t even get medals, but we were having such fun we didn’t bother!”

It’s also her competitive instinct that has her heading back for more. “I try to keep at the top of my age group every year even though it gets harder and harder.”

As in the Dusi Canoe Marathon, KwaZulu-Natal’s other aquatic icon event, water levels have played their part over the years, she says.

“There were a couple of years when the dam was really low and we had to run quite far to get in and out of the water. In those days I could run quite fast but now it’s a lot less chaotic with a deepwater start.

“In the old days there was also a raft halfway where you could rest [it was a popular meeting place for a lot of people] though I can’t say I ever stopped there and hardly ever saw it.”

She says the Midmar Mile weekend is simply a perennial part of her calendar. “I finish one and immediately book my accommodation for the next one, year after year. It just keeps me motivated to get back into the water.”

Not that she needs any encouragement. “I swim most days. That’s my personal time and something I can control and do for myself and those daily 90 min are a very nice time for me.”

She has also had to reinvent herself as a swimmer after she specialised in the breaststroke for so many years. “I always struggled with my knees and eventually had a double knee replacement so it’s a learning curve, even now.”

She even tried running at one stage of her sporting career. “My husband, Gary, has done 13 Comrades Marathons, so when I was 40 I did my first marathon, the Cape Town marathon, but to run Comrades just takes too much training.”

On to this weekend though, “fifty years sounds daunting and I have to admit it does make me nervous. But I’m excited to be swimming for a good cause by doing the first eight miles to raise funds for [Olympian gold medallist] Chad le Clos’ foundation.”

Away from the water, Bristow spent her professional career teaching in KwaZulu-Natal and the Western Cape, ending off her career with a 17-year stint at Wynberg Girls’ High where she was head of geography.

Final words on Bristow belong to her sporting and teaching peer, Renée Scott, former Comrades Marathon gold medallist, Cape Town Cycle tour and women’s course record-holder and also a world age-group triathlon gold medallist.

“Gail’s a legend of the sport and we were lucky that she moved to Cape Town as she makes everyone who knows her very proud,” says Scott. “She was a fellow geography teacher and an awesome athlete. Dedicated to both of those talents, I was so lucky to benefit from her passion and dedication to teaching.

“Gail replaced me for a term of teaching [at Herschel Girls] when I wanted to go and watch my daughter [Olympian track athlete, Dominique] run in the US. She was so loved by my pupils and did such an awesome job that I was totally at peace being out of the classroom.

“The excellent swimmer she is, is equalled by the quality of her as a geography teacher.

“She’s a legend teacher and a star of the Midmar Mile. The fact that she has chosen a charity to support this weekend as well as swimming her 50th in memory of her late brother is testament to the incredible human being she is. I wish her all the best for her eight Midmar Miles this weekend.”

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