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Barbara Nicholson: Keeping the Grass Roots of Swimming Alive in South Africa

Karin Helmstaedt

South Africa is a land of contrasts. Within its boundaries one finds everything from simmering jungle to savannah, from mountains to endless sandy beaches. A wealth of wildlife and natural resources. Glittering cities and deplorable shanty towns. Internationally, the country is probably best known for its ugly history of political strife and racial conflict.

Despite its many difficulties, South Africa harbours a fierce love of sport. The success of the 1995 Rugby World Cup and Cape Town's bid to host the 2004 Olympics show just how eager they are to get back into the international arena. Throughout the "isolation years" when sanctions both economic and cultural kept South Africa out of most athletic gatherings, spectator sports such as rugby, cricket, golf, and tennis managed to keep a fairly high profile within the country itself.

Swimming, on the other hand, along with many other amateur sports, has had to fight to keep any profile at all. It has been up to people like Barbara Nicholson, who worry about the grass roots of the sport, to keep it alive.

A former South African freestyle champion, Mrs. Nicholson goes back a long way with the sport-her own swimming career started at eight years of age and ended at twenty-six. Coached by her father in Johannesburg, she dominated the 100 m freestyle at the South African Nationals from 1948 through to 1953.

Not about to let such a glorious past go to waste, she went back to swimming as a teacher after having her own children, and for over 35 years she has been imparting her savvy to others of all ages. Now living in Cape Town, she teaches swimming lessons at three different pools in the Cape area. While her focus is mainly on her teaching program, she also believes in nurturing the competitive side of the sport and coaches some "squad swimming" at a local school pool.

"Swimming is very important in this country," she says. "In sunny countries like this where every third or fourth (white) household has a pool, once children can walk they are in danger."

Hence Mrs. Nicholson's philosophy is to start them young. Her clientele range from babies to children 12 to 13 years old, and her methods vary according to age, always with an emphasis on learning proper stroke technique.

"When you start them young they really need lessons every year," she says. "By the time they are 7 or 8 they can swim properly, with full arm extension and full control of their bodies. Up until then you aim for what you are going to do. I teach children to swim with long straight arms, because swimming is shoulder work. If you teach them from little to use their shoulders then it is very easy afterwards to teach them to bend their arms into the proper position."

When working with a beginner, Mrs. Nicholson always teaches one on one. Once the swimmers are waterborne, she puts them into groups of 6 to 8. As they progress they move up through five different groups until they get to the "squad." Squad swimmers work harder, developing their aerobic capacity and swimming further and faster so that they can compete on a school or club level. Always with an eye on technique, Mrs. Nicholson works to produce "good" swimmers with good strokes; the choice to go on and compete is then their own.

But age is not the only factor to consider when she is teaching. In South Africa, where the Black and Coloured populations make up a heavy majority (of the population of 38 million, 29 million are Black, 5 million are White, 3 million Coloured and 1 million are of Indian descent), race and social background also influence her approach.

"Black children have to be taught in a completely different way," says Mrs. Nicholson. "I mean Black as opposed to Coloureds (mixed race) because the Coloureds are generally better off than Blacks. There aren't a lot of very well-off Blacks, and their swimming is restricted to rivers and dams. They need to be taught water survival first. They must be able to keep their heads above water before you can teach them to swim."

Before the abolition of apartheid in 1991, White clubs and Non-White clubs did not mix at all, even in competition. Steps are being taken toward total integration, but money is tight, and the obstacles are many.

Mrs. Nicholson cites a number of problems that make success in swimming an uphill battle for South Africa. Money is a big one. "Swimming is not a cheap sport. I don't think we stand a chance at the Olympics until we get some help from universities and other organizations. Nobody is interested enough to put up the funds. But the money is there...just look at cricket and golf. For the time being the financial backers don't have enough visibility in swimming."

Facilities are also in great demand. "In South Africa we battle for pools," she says. In all of Cape Town there is only one indoor pool that is open to the public- a 33 1/3 m pool built in 1907. As none of the outdoor pools are heated, it is extremely difficult to keep swimmers in the water throughout the winter months (April to October). It is simply too cold.

"I think we've got a lot of talent here but the good swimmers all polish up in the States," says Mrs. Nicholson. "They just can't get that final little bit here. Not that the coaches aren't good enough, but we don't have the back-up." Penny Heyns, South Africa's breaststroke star training in Nebraska, is a prime example.

An imbalance of clubs also hinders local competition. In the Cape, the domination of two enormous clubs, Vineyard and Strand, makes interclub competition practically non-existent. Mrs. Nicholson thinks that the splitting up of the provinces due to political changes may prove to be a positive move with respect to the development of competition. "The Transvaal has many clubs and a good league system, but a league system in the Cape would be very boring."

The Western Province has been innovative however, as it was the first to amalgamate the White and Non-White Coaches' Associations. "We have to concentrate now on the Black population," she continues. "I have worked with some Black children but I wish I could work with more." While Mrs. Nicholson claims that, in her experience, the Blacks are not water-people (they are more inclined to take up athletics), she insists that there are some good up-and-coming swimmers amongst the Coloureds.

Apart from the obvious financial and logistical difficulties for the Blacks-pools are few and far between in the Black townships and transportation is often a problem-there are other problems with getting them in the water. Such as cultural superstitions. "The Zulu believe that water is female," says Mrs. Nicholson, "and that a man mustn't swim in it because its femaleness will weaken him."

Interestingly, many of the swim teachers in South Africa are women. For several reasons, explains Mrs. Nicholson. "A lot of parents in South Africa feel that male teachers are less sympathetic and lacking in patience when it comes to small children," she says, "although I personally don't agree."

Secondly, due to the lack of indoor facilities, teaching swimming is a job that is limited to the summer season. "Most men look for a more stable way to make a living," she continues. "It's a summer job and most of the women only work for half the year."

Mrs. Nicholson continues to attend coaching clinics and seminars, and is writing a book on teaching swimming. As she maintains, teaching and coaching are different things. "There are so many that need to learn to swim," she says. "I just love teaching."

As to whether swimming and amateur sport will get a boost now that South Africa is recognized by the international federations, she is not sure how quickly it will happen. "There are so many other things that this country needs to do that I don't think it's a priority for the moment. But we're a very sports-minded nation." She'll carry on so that, when the time comes, the swimmers themselves will be there.

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