Going the extra mile

2012-02-08 00:00

NORMALLY at this time of the year Mister Midmar Mile is grumpy. His conversation is peppered with impatience: “Can you believe these guys?” “Do you know what they’ve done?” “What were they thinking?”

Wayne Riddin is a perfectionist. He doesn’t suffer fools gladly, and it shows. He talks about this supplier, or that sponsor, or the other individual who has in one way or another not delivered the goods: “Sometimes I have to slap myself — am I right or am I wrong?” he demands.

Riddin is the convenor of the annual Midmar Mile swim, and he’s involved at every level of the organisation. Whether he’s physically helping to erect platforms at the finish, or responding to a late-entry query, or dealing with the media, or waiving the entry fee for a needy swimmer, his guiding hand is firmly in control of what has become one of the country’s premium sporting events. In 2009 it made the Guinness record books as the biggest open-water swimming event in the world, and this weekend Riddin expects there to be 17 000 participants.

When the first race was held in 1973, there were only 153 swimmers, and since then it has attracted a host of big names — Terence Parkin, Darian Townsend, Chad Ho, current Swimming South Africa coach Graham Hill — the list goes on. How big can it get? In 1991, there were those who thought 2 500 was the limit, mainly for reasons of safety. But some in the organising committee had a greater vision, and Riddin was appointed as the new convenor. At the time he was a maths and science teacher and a swimming coach (he went on to coach SA), as well as a top-level athlete — through the nineties he won the Ironman title five times and placed second twice. His first big innovation for the Midmar Mile was to computerise results immediately. This is his 21st year at the helm, and during that time the batching system has been introduced, new categories have been created and the race has grown from a one-day to a two-day event. As much as the Midmar Mile has come of age, so has Riddin. “As we get older, we get a bit wiser,’’ he says, and as he says it, I notice that even though he still grumbles just as much as ever when things aren’t going right, a mellowness has crept in, and the angry edge of past years has vanished.

What happened? “Divorce,’’ he replies. “I was going to walk away from all this to save my marriage,’’ he says. Now 52, and a two-time winner of the race way back in 1975 and 1976, Riddin’s life has revolved around the Mile in so many ways that such a sacrifice seems unthinkable. But the marriage broke up finally two years ago and all his renewed energy is being channelled back into the event. “Now I try to help people,’’ he says. He sees the Mile’s success as being part of a social trend to participation, and away from competition. The joy of it is that anyone can take part. “If you come to the Midmar Mile feeling sorry for yourself, you’ll change your mind very quickly,’’ he says. “It doesn’t matter if you’re overweight, or disabled.” Anyone who’s been to the race will know what he’s talking about. Tub-of-lards who waddle about heavily on land bob gracefully across the dam, sometimes to the mortification of ripped gym bunnies wallowing in their wake. Riddin talks of the transformative power of the race, recalling people he’s known whose lives have crashed and who’ve rebuilt their confidence, their very personalities by pitting themselves against the Mile. That’s why he’s so set on including as many people as possible. He mentions a woman who wanted to swim after a 30-year absence but who couldn’t afford the entry fee. He made a plan for her. And the school whose funds were drained by storm damage and couldn’t afford to pay the full fees for the team. Again, he made a plan.

This is why the death of novice swimmer Nick Mellett during last year’s race was so shattering. There have been 300 000 finishers since computer records started and this was the first time a swimmer had been lost during a race, but that’s no consolation. This year there will be a memorial trophy in Mellett’s honour, and to make sure even more help is at hand, Riddin is putting in extra observation platforms, each with a lifesaver and a medic onboard.

The race is an all-consuming business, and no sooner is it over than planning for the next year starts. Does Riddin have a life apart from it? He smiles as I ask this. Well, he runs the Seals Swimming Club, which has produced a batch of Olympic champs, and about 70 children train at the club’s premises every day. The first coaching session of the day is at 5.30, and the last one wraps up in early evening. Riddin also handles media­ for Swimming SA. He is on the board of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, and his events company organises corporate relays.

What does he do to relax? He found the time to attend his protégée Charlene Wittstock’s wedding in Monaco, and he tries to head off somewhere far for a fortnight every year to get away from it all. But he doesn’t swim much any more.

“When you spend so much time around the pool the motivation isn’t really there.” Surely after Sunday he’ll have some time to himself? Yes, he says. Come next Thursday, he’ll be paddling the Dusi. His 24th. “That will be relaxing.”

Riddin talks of the transformative power of the race, recalling people he’s known whose lives have crashed and who’ve rebuilt their confidence, their very personalities by pitting themselves against the Mile. That’s why he’s so set on including as many people as possible.

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