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Muir, A Pool Pioneer At 12, Passes Away

Apr 2, 2013  - Craig Lord

Obituary: Karen Yvette Muir, the South African world-record holder denied international fame in the 1960s because of her country's apartheid regime, has passed away. She was 60 and had been fighting breast cancer.

Muir, born on September 16, 1952, was the youngest-ever world record holder in any sport. On August 1, 1965, at the Derby Baths in Blackpool, England, Muir, 12 years, 10 months and 25 days, became the youngest ever world record holder when she clocked 1:08.7 in the 110 yards backstroke in the morning heats at ASA Championships. (Some references refer to Getrude Ederle, USA, as having been 11 she became the first official world record holder over 880yd, in 13:19.0 in 1919, when in fact she was 13 years and 9 months old). 

The late British swimming writer Pat Besford described Muir as "the painfully shy, skinny South African, who had been brought to England 'for experience' and had no real idea of how to start or turn". Muir, born and raised in Kimberley, was nicknamed the "Timid Torpedo" and after her success in swimming, the Karen Muir Swimming Pool in Kimberley was named after her.

Besford said that "such exceptional talent  deserved Olympic golds in Mexico [1968 Olympics]." Politics and the prejudices of her nation at the time stood in the way.

In metric pools, which became the measure of all official world records, Muir established the 100m global mark three times and the 200m standard four times between 1966 and 1969. Muir’s last mark in the 100m, of 1:05.6 in July 1969, would stand until the dawn of the GDR era in 1973. 

She remains a world record holder to this day: in 1:06.7 and 2:24.1 she held the 110 and 220 yards backstroke global standard at the time FINA stopped recognising yards swims for world records. Her entry in the world-record book has  the world "last" beside it, none who followed ever able to say they broke her world yards records. 

Elected to the International Swimming Hall of Fame in 1980, Muir established 15 world records on backstroke in the second half of the 1960s, metres and yards.

Former South African international Ryk Neethling posted this note on Facebook: "Sad to hear of the passing of Karen Muir a South African swimming legend. She broke her first WR at the age of 12, but was not allowed to compete in the Olympics. When my mother was expecting me Karen lived in the apartment next to my parents and kept a keen interest on 'my' progress. I grew up hearing stories about her races from her old coach and it made me dream big. The end of the first golden era of SA swimming."

Muir also won 22 South African Championships and three US National Championships, but never competed at the Olympic Games because of the sports boycott imposed on her country. She retired from swimming in 1970, still a teenager but with no international target to aim for. She was awarded the Helms Trophy for Africa and the South African President's Award of merit. 

Muir went on to qualify as a doctor, practised medicine across Africa before emigrating to Canada, where she practised until her death.