Lorna Cochran, 89, will be swimming her 14th aQuellé Midmar Mile this year and if she makes it to the other side, she will be the oldest finisher in the race’s 40-year history. In 1999 Colin Cable finished as an 89-year-old, but he was four months younger than Cochran. She turns 90 in July.
The race, recognised by Guinness World Records as the world’s biggest open water swimming event, takes place on 9 and 10 February. It takes its name from the location- the Midmar Dam outside Pietermaritzburg in KwaZulu-Natal – and the distance of about a mile.
People come from all over the world to contest the Midmar Mile, including disabled entrants, company or family teams, and Olympic swimmers. However, they don’t all leap into the water at once – they depart in groups at three-minute intervals, with the fastest going first, in eight separate races over the two days. Swimmers are allocated to certain groups depending on their time in a qualifying event.
The race has expanded to distances of 3km, 10km and 25km. This year there’ll be tough competition between some of the world’s top swimmers for first place, with prize money of R10 000 (US1 120).
One of the more inspirational entrants for the 2013 event is Craig Dietz from the US. He has no arms or legs but is a regular open water swimmer as well as a qualified attorney and a sought-after motivational speaker. This is his first Midmar mile.
Other entrants this year include British swimming star Keri-Ann Payne, Katinka Hosszu from Hungary, French swimmer Sébastien Rouault, and South African Olympian Troy Prinsloo.
The defending champion is South Africa’s Chad Ho.
Taking her time
Cochran takes her time during the swim – she stops and floats for a while, does a bit of breaststroke, then freestyle, and finishes the Midmar Mile in an hour and some change.
“I don’t have the stamina and breath anymore,” says a youthful-sounding 89-year-old Cochran, “my age is against me, I’m afraid.”
In her earlier years, she says, she used to swim the 1.6km race without stopping, but is now “very slow”. Cochran first took part in the Midmar Mile at the youthful age of 75!
She is five years older than the oldest male participant this year, and 12 years older than the next oldest woman. She might have had a serious challenge to the record if 90-year-old Petrus Meyer from Pietermaritzburg had not suffered “a late setback” which meant he had to withdraw this year. Meyer is planning a comeback for next year.
Breaking the records
Cochran will be getting into the water with more than 14 000 swimmers over the weekend. The organisers hope that this year the final tally of entrants will be close to 15 000 swimmers, improving on the race’s 2009 Guinness World Record of 13 755 finishers.
“We’ve already unofficially broken our own Guinness record for the world’s largest open water swimming event,” says event organiser Wayne Riddin, “but with this being the 40th anniversary of the race, we’re expecting a larger entry than normal to come through because there will be a special medal and cap.”
According to Riddin, conditions on the dam can be tough, with mist, waves and high winds. He says that the race attracts a wide range of ages – from six to 89 years, meaning that parents can swim with their young children. “We get a lot of under-10s swimming.”
This also makes the Midmar Mile one of the world’s most unusual sporting events, where all ages complete the same distance.
Riddin is excited about the participation of the race’s founder, Mike “Buthy” Arbuthnot, who will be swimming his 40th race. He is 80 years old.
“Buthy’s participation is always going to be the special moment,” Riddin says. “We’ve been building up to this for a number of years. The question was how good would his health be as Buthy gets older.”
Always mad about sports
When she first took part Cochran used to finish in 54 to 55 minutes, but now “I can’t get under an hour these days”.
She has seven children, 24 grandchildren and 24 great-grandchildren, and most years swims with some of her children or grandchildren.
She confesses that she was really nervous the first time she swam the race, aged 75. That nervousness never leaves one. “I am a bit nervous this time, it’s a big task,” she says, with a laugh.
Cochran says she has always been a sportsperson, representing her school in tennis, hockey and swimming. She was at boarding school at St Dominic’s in Newcastle in KwaZulu-Natal, and learnt to swim by watching and copying others.
She trains on Mondays, Tuesdays, Fridays and Saturdays. “On Wednesdays and Thursdays I don’t train – you gotta live, go shopping . . .” she laughs.
Taking up swimming in her 70s
Cochran was playing club tennis at 74 when she was dropped from the second to the third team, a fact that upset her as she says she beat the player chosen to replace her, the Sunday Tribune reports.
Her son Neil comforted her by suggesting she join them doing the Midmar Mile for the first time, “for a bit of fun”.
So she started training, doing an hour in the pool, stopping and resting after 50 metres, because she was “very slow”, she says. Her son worked out a training programme for her because he “realised she was serious about the challenge”. She competed in her first Midmar Mile in 1998, and has not looked back.
Cochran says she will not swim next year’s race, but then hesitates. “But who knows, I will never give up swimming, it is good exercise.” She says it is sometimes quite difficult, but her attitude is to “take it as it comes”.
“I seem to have the genes,” she concludes.
And when she’s not in the swimming pool, Cochran does line dancing once a week at the old age home where she lives in Benoni on Gauteng’s East Rand.
By: Lucille Davie