Geoff Grylls is a local legend in the Eastern Cape as a Springbok swimmer, lifesaver, sailor, and international businessman. He also won the Redhouse River Mile 6 times, and he swam the race again in recent times.
Geoff matriculated at Grey High School in 1961, swimming with coach Peter Elliot at the Barracuda Swimming Club. He graduated with a BComm degree at UPE.
Springbok team 1966 to USA and Canada: L-R: Doods Bulley; Karen Muir, Geoff Grylls, Dianne Ludorf, Brian Stewart, Shirley van der Poel, Alex Bulley, Anne Fairly.
Geoff Grylls’s successes were not only on the surface of the water as a champion swimmer, but also underneath. He used natural skill and acumen to build a multi-million dollar enterprise extracting diamonds from under the sea in the world’s second biggest sea mining operation after the renowned de Beers Diamond Company. By Cecil Colwin
In swimming circles world-ranked swimmer Geoff Grylls has long been known as a ‘River Rat’, a South African colloquialism for a person who thrives on swimming in rivers. He learned to swim in South Africa’s Swartkops River, a large river that flows into the Indian Ocean, near the city of Port Elizabeth. And this is where he later did most of his training. Like many a good swimmer before him Geoff can’t remember when he couldn’t swim. From his early years swimming has been an important part of his life. He liked being near water and was sailing his own yacht in open water at the age of eight. In the pool, while still in his teens, he began to win national and international freestyle swimming championships at every distance from the 100 to the mile. However Geoff’s successes weren’t only on the surface of the water but also beneath it. From under the sea he built a multi-million dollar enterprise extracting diamonds in the world’s second biggest sea mining operation after the renowned de Beers Diamond Company.
Talking about growing up on the Swartkops River, Geoff said that it was “a paradise, an adventurous place in which to grow up, just like Tom Sawyer’s life in a Mark Twain story. We all learned to swim, sail, row and do all sorts of water sports like canoeing, fishing and water skiing. ““We led a very unrestrained life, and once we had learned to swim we were left pretty much alone all day. So we explored the river, seeing seagull nests, monitor lizards, snakes etc. Apart from swimming we did a lot of sailing on the river and this also became an important part of my life.”
Throughout his competitive swimming career, even when he was a South African and British Champion, Geoff trained in the river for most of his big races. “I used to discipline myself to go down to the river and train, and hang a watch off one of the jetties in the river and swim between the jetties or across the river and back and record my times. That’s how I used to do my splits.” Asked how he was able to measure his speed over an unmarked distance, Grylls said “I knew that the river was 100 metres across...approximately, depending upon the tide, and the distance between the jetties was approximately50 metres. And, depending on which way the tide was flowing, my times would be different, and so I adjusted my times for the rate at which the tide was flowing and swam against myself!” Asked how he would know his reactions when he finally got into the strange surroundings of a marked-off swimming pool. Grylls replied: “Well, I didn’t know. In fact, the week before the 1964 National Championships, where I won all four South African freestyle titles, my coach Peter Elliott, commenting on his team in the local newspaper, said ‘I have absolutely no idea how fit Geoff is because he swims in the river!’ . I used to train with Peter in his pool once a week and he would correct my stroke and give me time trials, but the rest of my training was done in the river. When I got into the pool, Peter merely checked my pacing and how I was moving in the water.”
Asked whether his coach commented on what times Geoff was clocking and what chances he stood in competition, Geoff replied: “Those sort of things didn’t really worry me. I had a sort of ‘inner-confidence’, I did the best I could. I honestly think that this attitude kept me relatively unshackled... it kept me relatively fresh. In fact, in 1966 when Ilsa Konrads, the great Australian swimmer turned journalist, was in South Africa because she found this most intriguing, she wrote a long article on how I trained in the river all alone and kept improving.”
“Eventually, this type of training was to condition me later for taking up open water racing because in 1964, the English magazine, “Swimming Times” in Britain, when discussing my winning all four British freestyle titles, said that I was ‘a star whose technique they couldn’t fathom. He has the ability to lift his head out of the water to look around and see how he was doing in the race without unbalancing his stroke.” Grylls said that when he eventually took up surf swimming and later ventured into rough water swimming, “it was the sort of freedom that I enjoyed. And since then, other than when I played water polo for Eastern Province and then Western Province, since those days at the end of the 1960’s I’ve been a loner. I’ve trained alone in the sea. For example, beginning in 2006 when I went to the World Life Saving Championships, during the preceding six months in training I trained alone in 14 different venues in four continents, mostly in the sea.”
“I do train in the pool quite often now but most of my real hard training is only in the sea, and what I do is as follows: I know that I take90 strokes for 100 metres. I have an unusually rapid turnover and so I do repeats by taking100 strokes flat out, then taking a rest time off my wrist watch, and then I keep doing 100stroke repeats as hard and fast as I can, taking a rest in between... it’s a sort of oceanic repeat swimming! And so all my open water interval training is done in this fashion, varying the number of strokes;100 strokes or 200 strokes, or if I’m speeding it up, on 50 strokes. For the last nine years, my companion Shirley and I have spent three months of every year out in the Mediterranean or in Croatia, where our yacht is moored, and the only place I’ve had to swim in, is the sea!”
Now in his sixties, Geoff is winning international open water long distance events and life-saving competitions in his age group. He takes three or four months out in every year to sail his yacht in rivers and oceans around the world, stopping to train in an inviting bay or wherever he can find a likely rough water challenge in which to swim.
Born 18 Sept 1943, Port Elizabeth SA Height : 6 feet ,three inches. Present weight: 188 pounds, but down to 182when really training. (Grylls weighed about 165in pounds in his heyday)
Matriculated at Grey High School, Port Elizabeth, 1961.
Compulsory military training at the SA Air Force Gymnasium 1962. This Institution is very sport inclined and Grylls was given great encouragement with his swimming.
Bachelor of Commerce Degree, 1963/1966 The University of Port Elizabeth.
Named South African “Male Swimmer of the Year”, in 1962, 1963, 1964.
1962 Won the South African National 1650 yds title and swam for South Africa versus the visiting Japanese Team.
1963 Won the South African 220, 440 and 1650 yds freestyle titles. Member of the Eastern Province Team that won the National Championship 4 x110 medley relay and both the 4 x 110 yds and4 x 220 yds freestyle relay titles.
1964 Won every South African Freestyle title: 110,220, 440 and 1650 yds. Also won the 4.5mile Fish Hoek to Muizenberg swim in the Indian Ocean swim (Each swimmer had an accompanying personal board paddler because of sharks sighted in the Bay.)
1964 Member of the South African touring Team to England where he won the 220, 440, and1650 yds British National titles, but heard that South Africa had been expelled from the Tokyo Olympics. No one realized that, as a Dual Citizen of South Africa and Great Britain, Grylls qualified for a British passport and as such, if selected, could have been permitted to compete in the Tokyo Olympics.
1965 Did not swim in SA Championships because of mononucleosis (glandular fever) and also missed the Fish Hoek Open Water swim.
1965 Member of the South African touring Team to England where he won the 220, 440, 880 yds Freestyle British National titles and came second in the 1650.
1966 Scaled down his swimming activities as he was working full day, studying 5 university subjects and trying to train in between. As a result, he did not swim the 1650 in the South African National Championships, but came 3rd in the 110yds freestyle and won the 220 and 440 titles at the South African Championships.
1966 As a member of the South African Team toured USA and competed in the American National Championships in Lincoln, Nebraska, where he tied with 3rd fastest time in the 200 metres freestyle but was given 4th place time. Don Schollander and John Nelson were first and second respectively in world record time. (Grylls beat the up and coming 16-year old Mark Spitz in this race in which Spitz was swimming in his first National Championships.)
After these Championships Doc Counsilman offered Grylls the chance to do an MBA and train at Indiana University, but as South Africa was not permitted to compete in the 1968 Mexico Olympics, Grylls turned his back on competitive swimming and joined the Surf Lifesaving Association which, “because of its humanitarian aspects”, continued to be internationally recognized.
by Cecil Colwin
Swimnews - December 2011
In this issue, Geoff Grylls discusses the differences between pool swimming and swimming in rough ocean water conditions. "Regarding my feelings on open water and surf swimming, I think they differ from the general!} accepted view on age-group competitive swimming. We always tell young lifesavers that if they can afford a Speedo, they can afford to be an amateur lifesaver, which is what we mostly are. We have, therefore, been able to give a competitive break to poorer people who maybe cannot afford to pay pool fees, coach's fees, and the transport that often goes with it. If they can perfect sea swimming, particularly in rough water (and remember that we have competed at times in waves of around three metres that really negates the more perfect pool strokes), then they can become champions and perform a great public service."
"Rough water swimming is sort of the same. I train almost exclusively in some form of rough water and find that in races the rougher it gets, the better my relative performance gets. So if people live in remote places with access to open water, it does not stop them from swimming competitively. And then all sorts of other elements can come into it, like cold water, wind waves, sea waves, currents, and local nuances. All of these I find a challenge as against some guy with a stop watch saying 'You did better last week.' Different pressures!
"I find that I have a distinctive different stroke when swimming in the open water when there are waves, and this differs if there are big waves or slight chop. In the pool it is all about technique and rhythm, while in slight chop you have to ensure that the chop does not affect your rhythm. I know that I roll more when in choppy water and think that this is to ensure that my arm action is not affected. I also concentrate mainly on the entry and am quite aggressive when my arm is entering the water. I feel that if this part of the stroke is not being affected, then the rest of the stroke will sort of look after itself. If waves are going to upset your rhythm, they are most likely to do so when the arm is in the vulnerable position before entry. Also in any rough water I concentrate on my head position. This can easily be thrown off by waves or undulations in the water, so I concentrate on ensuring that my head position is correct. I actually feel that the upper part of my body is feeling quite rigid, if that makes sense."
"In big waves (ie., more than surface chop), you have to really concentrate on your arm entry because sometimes there will be a gap where you think water will be and sometimes you push straight into a wave that may be above head height. So the concentration is on getting your ami into the water and ready for the stroke while not allowing your head position to be thrown off alignment. And you have to be able to miss a breath (or two!) as you fight your way through waves. In surf swimming, your breathing is hugely important and I train at mostly doing bi-lateral, and then doing some repeats while breathing every four or five strokes. "So to sum it up, I suppose that I concentrate almost exclusively on the forward part of the stroke, and I am prepared to shorten my stroke and fight the waves, rather than have a long 'pretty' stroke. I concentrate on body position and not being thrown off stride by missing breaths."
"I'm careful in choosing the events I enter because I don't want swimming to dictate my life; I choose a couple of races a year and this gives me something to train for, otherwise I get lazy. So for instance, In 2009 I did the Midmar (first in 60+) , then last year the La Jolla rough water mile (won 65+ and defended again this year), and this year won the Aumakua Mile in Maui and also swam in the Maui Channel Swim in a team. (That was a rough swim this year.) "
In 2012, I think I will do the Stari Grad swim in Croatia in August, and I usually swim in the South African Masters Surf Lifesaving Championships in March each year. Just for old- times' sake, I often also do the Redhouse River Mile in the Swartkop River, near Redhouse, the village where I was brought up. It is the oldest open water race in South Africa, having started in 1928."
When Grylls gave up pool swimming, he went into Surf Lifesaving, where he said, "We were still accepted internationally, and I was in a South African team that competed against Australia. I've continued my interest in lifesaving all these years, and have put my efforts into the sport administratively as well."
Geoff was on the South African Lifesaving executive for many years and a couple of years on the international committee for the sport in Lifesaving. "I competed in the international masters in Florida. Italy, and Australia for instance (winning a couple of golds), but once again I didn't want competitions to dominate my life, which has been all about fun and moderation!"
"Each year between Christmas and New Year, we swim a mile race at the moudi of the large Breede River in South Africa. Two years ago. two weeks after our swim, the biggest Bull Shark ever (4 metres) was caught in the Breede River three miles upstream (!) from where we swim!
"The television program 'River Monsters' featured these large Bull Sharks (we call them Zambezi River Sharks) that are caught in the Breede River. They released this record-sized shark after putting a monitor on it and tracked it swimming past our house, which is 20 miles upstream. Training in the River now is a bit problematic mentally and so I only do kayaking when I am there now! Meanwhile, the Breede River Swim still continues each year!"
Grylls said that sharks are generally becoming a problem to open-water swimmers. He mentioned a favourite place in Plettenberg Bay where he regularly goes body surf training. "Last month, just around the rocks (about 200 metres awayV a surfer was killed by a shark, and in October a British tourist was taken by a shark at Fish Hoek (check YouTube), the second death this year in the same vicinity."
Geoff keeps a cruising yacht in Croatia, a standard Beneteau 4l foot, with three berths, called LilUi. "It is not spectacular in any way, but provides us with a 'wet RV and, although we often have friends aboard, Shirley and I can handle it easily together. In fact, often when I am away swimming or on business, Shirley (also a qualified skipper) continues sailing. We spend three to four months each year cruising in the Adriatic. We have done a great deal of off shore sailing, fifty miles from land, often in big seas that sometimes run off the southern coast line of South Africa. Although now I'm beginning to prefer more leisurely cruising; I have a full-on 43-foot racing yacht in Cape Town in partnership with a friend who owns one of the biggest sail lofts in the world. This is the vessel in which we now do off-shore racing but only around the South African coast. Most of our deep water cruising recently has been in the Mediterranean and we have been in some storms during this time, but nothing really dramatic, except maybe one night when our mainsail got ripped to shreds. But we were on a bigger yacht and our two-member crew was very proficient."
Geoff said that his adopted lifestyle made it difficult to get into a regular rigid routine. "For instance, when I was training for the 2006 Masters World Lifesaving Champs in Australia, I trained in 14 different venues in four continents in the six months prior to the event. Because of our leisurely lifestyle, most days when we are sailing, we anchor in a bay or small village where I just jump overboard and swim. There is no scientific means of measurement, but I still use my old method of doing my repeats on 100 strokes, rest, etc. If the sea is rough, I swim out of the bay into the open sea to keep my rough-water style going. I don't do much distance, maybe 1000 to 1500 metres every second day or so. I do very little pool swimming now, probably because I feel the drudgery of swimming up and down in an enclosed space. And, to be fair, I suppose because it doesn't fit in with my chosen lifestyle."
"To explain our lifestyle, in the last 10 years, Shirley and I have lived a very unstructured life. A lot of what we do is spontaneous and is probably why I have such alternating training routines.
For instance, we have
Geoff described how lifesaving is a sport that trains swimmers for the real thing. "The events are made to simulate rescues so as to improve techniques in actual rescues. Buoys are set out between 200 to 2S0 metres apart, depending on tides, and sometimes huge surf that could be breaking around the buoys. A swim race would, therefore, be between 400 and 500 metres long, and a rescue belt race between 200 and 250 metres apart.
"Sometimes the events are cancelled if the surf is excessive, but only in real storm conditions. The guys rough it out through big swells. But that is only part of it, because spotting rips and catching waves make a huge difference. And 'pretty' stroke work does not always help! So as you get older, you may get slower but you do get wiser, and that leads to longevity in the sport."
In 1962, Geoff met John Whitley, a prominent South African swimmer, while serving in the South African Air Force. The) were both radar controllers taught to monitor fighter planes in the air. "But because we were always getting time off to train or compete, we really did not do much. Since then, we have swum all over the world together and 1 invested in his very successful business in the USA. John now swims in most US and World Masters events. My association with him requires me to visit the US twice a year on business, and I visit London al least twice a year also on business, so trying to set a routine training schedule is not easy! I introduced John to Surf Lifesaving, and he competed with me in World Masters in 2002, 2004, and 2006. He is exceptionally good at events using flippers and has won a few golds at these events. John is a great student of stroke technique and really is my coach, correcting my faults when we meet. His training is more orthodox than mine, but he encourages me and understands my wayward ways! Incidentally, John has built a very impressive business in the US and Canada. (The largest private pest-elimination business and leading food-safety company in North America)."
Geoff Grylls said that he had rarely been employed working for a salary. When asked how he had become so successful in business, he said: "A couple of us started a finance business in 1976 that arranged complicated financing for projects, particularly in the local authority and parastatal field. We did not require capital and in fact we placed a lot of business with banks. But we built up a portfolio of clients and eventually were bought out by a bank, and that gave us the capital to go into more capital intensive projects."
Grylls, now reputed to be one of South Africa's multi-millionaires, said that it was "not really a grand plan, but rather that we took opportunities as they arose and managed to build up a capital base of our own. Later we obviously did use bank financing in projects and so built up a bigger portfolio. We had some disasters but mostly winners! I suppose we came out on the right side. Mine was not a classical case study, just opportunism. And some luck of course!"
Geoff Grylls has long ago been dubbed a "serial entrepreneur." A serial entrepreneur will often come up with an idea and put some money into the project to help get things started, but then pass the responsibility to someone else and move on to a new idea and a new venture. Geoff said after selling the finance company in the mid-1980s to a bank: "After that, I started an offshore diamond mining business that eventually became the second biggest in sea mining (after de Beers).
"I have since financed young entrepreneurs in the US, Europe, and South Africa in various businesses, but always based on my assessment of the integrity and capability of each individual. In most cases, these people have been very successful. It seems that the less I did, the more successful they became, so that led to a seamless choice of a life of travel and sailing! I hope Ibis makes sense. I could be more specific if you require it, but then this would become time consuming and more of a business story than a swimming one!"
“My last time was the first race at Sundays River and it’s just that other things I do such as yachting have clashed with the date of the River Mile,” Grylls said yesterday. “But I am really looking forward to the event. I have always said that these types of events need to be supported and I would like to acknowledge what the River Mile has done for me.”
Having grown up on the banks of the Swartkops River, Grylls soon became a popular winner and held the record of consecutive wins – six times from 1960-65 – until the mark was passed by Velia Janse van Rensburg (in the photo left)in 2008 when she won her seventh title in a row, and eighth overall.
In an interesting article in a Canadian publication, Swimnews, Cecil Colwin described how Grylls became one of the most famous open water swimmers in the world.
He wrote that Grylls had been known as a “River Rat”, referring to a person who thrives on swimming in rivers.
Talking about growing up on the Swartkops River, Grylls said it was “a paradise, an adventurous place in which to grow up, just like Tom Sawyer’s life in a Mark Twain story”.
“We all learnt to swim, sail, row, and do all sorts of water sports like canoeing, fishing and water-skiing.”
Throughout his competitive swimming career, even when he was a South African and British champion, Grylls trained in the river for most of his big races.
“I used to discipline myself to go down to the river and train, and hang a watch o one of the jetties in the river and swim between the jetties or across the river and back, and record my times. That’s how I used to do my splits,” Grylls said.
Asked how he would know his reactions when he finally got into the strange surroundings of a marked-off swimming pool, Grylls replied: “Well, I didn’t know. In fact, the week before the 1964 National Championships, where I won all four South African freestyle titles, my coach Peter Elliott said ‘I have absolutely no idea how fit Geoff is because he swims in the river!’
“I used to train with Peter in his pool once a week and he would correct my stroke and give me time trials, but the rest of my training was done in the river.”
Asked whether his coach commented on what times Grylls was clocking and what chances he stood in competition, he replied: “Those sort of things didn’t really worry me. I had a sort of inner confidence. I did the best I could. I honestly think that this attitude kept me relatively unshackled. It kept me relatively fresh.”
Grylls said when he eventually took up surf swimming and later ventured into rough water swimming, “it was the sort of freedom that I enjoyed”. “And since then, other than when I played water polo for Eastern Province and then Western Province at the end of the 1960s, I’ve trained alone in the sea.”
Grylls has retired, although he still has business interests which take him around the world. Whenever he gets the chance, he dips into the ocean or a river for a swim. Now he will be returning to celebrate the River Mile’s 90th anniversary, a fitting tribute both to the race and a River Mile legend.