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Meet 'Buthie' (87), the only person to have officially swum every Midmar Mile

While much has changed over 47 years of the Midmar Mile, there has been one constant throughout, and that’s the presence of Mike 'Buthie' Arbuthnot.

Mike 'Buthie' Arbuthnot Credit: Jetline Action Photo

CAPE TOWN - Mike “Buthie” Arbuthnot (87) was one of the founders of the famous Midmar Mile race back in 1974 and remains the only swimmer to have officially competed each year. Mike Pengelly has swum 45 officially and one unofficially, as has Gail Bristow, whose participation in 1974 wasn’t counted, as female swimmers weren’t allowed to officially enter yet.

This year, Arbuthnot will once again be part of the throng of thousands who will flock to Midmar Dam on the weekend on 8-9 February to take part in the world’s largest open water race.

“I keep coming back as I have done all of them, and would like to continue that record until my time here is done,” he said from his home in Howick, just a few kilometres from the famous dam. “There are a number who are catching up and are hoping I will give up so they can pass my record, but I’m hoping that does not happen for now,” he quipped.

Arbuthnot explained that among the reasons for the inception of the first-ever Midmar Mile was the fact that a bunch of water polo players couldn’t afford a new ball.

“I was an avid water polo player and was part of the Seals team. Seals Club could not pay for a new water polo ball, which our team needed, as the team had to provide a ball for league games. So that was one of the motivating factors to start the Midmar Mile – to raise funds to buy a ball. The Glenwood water polo players’ team swam that first year and threw the water polo ball to each other the whole way across.

“After the first race was so successful, more swimmers started joining year after year, and now it’s a big race – the largest open water swim in the world. There was no electricity in the beginning, so times had to be done with a stopwatch and written down by hand. For years the finish would have long queues of people giving their names while standing in line, waist-deep in the water. Things have changed a lot in the race, and in the world at large since that inaugural race in February 1974.”

After the success of the first year, Arbuthnot said there were a few issues with holding the next one at Midmar, and there were thoughts of moving the race to Durban.

“The port captain surprisingly said: ‘This is a commercial shipping port, we can’t have little girlies flapping around on their lilos.’ So that was the end of that,” he recalled.

In later years, the celebrated event founder has faced some serious ill health, but that’s never kept him from the dam. His daughter, Tracy Arbuthnot, who will be swimming alongside her father this year, explained: “He had colon cancer and a major operation 14 years ago, and he underwent chemotherapy. He had skin cancer four years ago. During an operation, he had a brain aneurysm and nearly died, and he had a stroke in October 2019. He has been slightly compromised, however, he feels that in the face of all this, it is his overall swimming health that has seen him overcome and live such a long and overall healthy life. That and a few beers.”

Sure enough, she said her father is raring to go for the 2020 edition of the race.

“Tony Bath swims with dad every year and has been so kind to ensure he is safe and on the right direction to the finish line. His father, Mike Bath, a previous president of Seals Swimming Club, is one of dad’s very good friends. My daughter, Victoria Bax, is doing the race too. She struggles with dyslexia and swimming Midmar has helped her to feel a part of something that is positive and healthy. My brother, Grant Arbuthnot, is also doing Midmar this year. We felt we wanted to swim with dad this year, so the three of us are coming up from Cape Town.”

It turns out swimming has been a life-changing pursuit for the entire family, she continued.

“Dad is very grateful to his mother, Florence Miller Arbuthnot, who encouraged his outdoor pursuits. She died when he was eight years old, and he then lived with his best friend, Tony Brokensha, and Tony’s aunt and uncle, Joan and Rowe English. Joan signed dad up to become a member of Seals Swimming Club at age 9, so she started him on this journey. She was hugely supportive of him and he is forever thankful for her love, support and guidance. Dad also met his wife, Yvonne Geyser, at Alexandra Swimming Pool in Pietermaritzburg. He was swimming for Seals and saw her at the pool, so swimming and Seals has defined most of his life.”

Grateful for what the sport has given him and now looking back 47 years, Buthie could not have imagined what a massive event the aQuellé Midmar Mile would become. “I’m just thrilled and happy that it has been such a success, and that it helps to promote healthy outdoors for many youngsters who are otherwise sitting on computers indoors.”

Current race organiser, Wayne Riddin, commented: “Our thanks go to Buthie for starting and growing this great event all those years ago. We wish him well as he takes part in an incredible 47th aQuellé Midmar Mile this year. He really is an example to us all.”

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