Open Water: Swimming legend a true gentleman

Open Water: Swimming legend a true gentleman

Champion swimmer and quiet leader Theodore Yach, who died a fortnight ago

CAPE TOWN open water endurance swimmer Theodore Yach died suddenly a fortnight ago. A veteran of 108 Robben Island events, an English Channel crossing and many internationally, he was a legend in the open-water swimming world.

“Theodore Yach was one of the world’s greatest endurance swimmers,” said environmental campaigner and ultra-distance swimmer Lewis Pugh.

“It is so sad that while he achieved greatness, he never reached his peak. Every year he got stronger and stronger. He recently shared his future swimming plans with me and they were incredible and would have firmly established him on the world’s stage.

“His Robben Island record is remarkable. There is no such thing as an easy Robben Island swim. They are all tough. It is a swim that challenges you to the core. Theodore respected it as such and developed a mental resilience to cope with any variable that might have presented itself.

“He was a strong environmentalist and his tweets were a source of constant encouragement, when I was busy with a project.”

Yach, 60, was a purist and at the forefront of the campaign to maintain the English Channel swimming association rules for Robben Island attempts. Like the English Channel, Robben Island swims are a deeply personal challenge of pitting one’s body against the cold, current and winds.

The late Theodore Yach, right, and his training partners Dr Otto Thaning, centre, and Martin Goodman. The three trained together at the Sea Point Pavilion for years.

Swimmers are permitted a single swimming cap, a simple costume and a pair of goggles. This is now embedded in the rules of the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association.

His swimming partners, cardio- thoracic surgeon Dr Otto Thaning and businessman Martin Goodman, shared thousands of training kilometres at his beloved Sea Point Pavilion.

Otto holds the record of the oldest man, at 73, to have swum the English Channel, while Martin has 28 Robben Island crossings to his name.

“Theodore had it all in abundance” said Thaning. “Swimming is a difficult sport that requires so many attributes. A natural talent probably is the most relevant and his talent was prodigious. Talent is essential, but so many with that God-given gift do not exercise the required dedication to develop it with training, intent and discipline.”

“Theodore practised extreme discipline in his approach to swimming. Training with him was a privilege shared with only a few. Nothing was expected from Martin and I, other than punctuality and determination.

Ocean advocate and pioneer swimmer and Cape Town resident, Lewis Pugh, says Yach was one of the best endurance sea swimmers in the world.

“Every session was sensible training and we never made the mistake to turn it into a competition. We concentrated on swimming together and made a point of not trying to edge ahead at any stage, except for the last length!

“We discussed small observations on each of our strokes and swimming attributes, and in so doing, learned so much from each other. Our programme was to manage a reasonable weekly total in kilometres. All three of us felt the huge distances some of our colleagues aspire to, to be irrelevant; our goal was to maintain quality swims rather than high kilometre sessions.

“For me, these sessions were cherished as special privileges,” he added.

“On longer open water swims we all swam almost in synchrony. My thoughts were focused on watching his stroke underwater. So much can be gauged by that underwater observation, in terms of whether he was comfortable, anxious or getting cold.

“On these swims I felt myself being energised by his strength and encouragement, somehow transmitted just by his proximity. Out there in the open sea, it can be a very cold and hostile environment, but with Theodore, it became a comfortable place.

“Almost as important as the actual swim session was the post-swim coffee break. The discussion at those breaks ranged across the entire spectrum of life, of family, politics and our mutual passion and love for South Africa in all its flawed, but unparalleled, beauty.

“We always seemed to enhance our belief that the future was indeed brighter ahead. From every occasion shared in this way, Martin and I would come away enhanced and enlightened.

“Theodore was very compassionate; he did not tolerate fools lightly, but always remained respectful and kind. His rise in the corporate world was meteoric and he was so intensely involved with the central Cape Town improvement projects. I feel a type of guilt in going to swim in his beloved Sea Point Pavilion without him, but somehow I feel him encouraging me to be there, so I will go. But I will also be searching for him and his unique stroke besides us, and hoping to feel his presence with us,” said Thaning.

Said Goodman: “On sea swims, Theodore remained a true gentleman, continuously offering encouragement and advice on how to cope with a tricky patch of cold, wind or currents.

“We swam 20 Robben Island crossings together and invariably he waited for me, so we could finish together. To him, camaraderie was more important than competition.

“On the start of my swims, I think of my body coping with the cold and then concentrate on my stroke. Theodore always embraced the cold, invited it in and mentally controlled it. He was never fearful of failure. He would write it off to experience and learn from it.”

Cape Town’s foremost female sea swimmer, Carina Bruwer Pugliese, said Yach had “a mind of steel”.

In a country in dire need of role models, Yach lived all facets of his life as an example to the rest of us. Cape Town has lost one of its sons far too early. He will be remembered in swimming circles as a gentleman, who loved his fellow man and gave back much more than he ever took.

Eddy Cassar is a local publicist and a swimmer.