Starved of international competition through political isolation and maintaining gruelling training schedules for only flimsy local challenges, Rhodesia's 'human torpedo' John Keyter, was eventually to get the chance of proving he was a world-class butterfly swimmer.
He was in the team preparing for the greatest test of them all — the 1968 Olympic Games at Mexico City. But big John's elation was short-lived and turned to bitter disappointment just three weeks before the Games, when. news was received that the Mexican Government would not grant visas to the politically outcast Rhodesians.
Keyter had long learned to live with the disappointment of being marooned from the outside sporting world following the Government's Unilateral Declaration of Independence which virtually coincided with his rise to the top in swimming.
But this was the bitterest pill and he was pushed to the very verge of retirement. He already had seven South African butterfly titles ... why should he continue the gut-wrenching training schedules?
Then in November 1968, a powerful young Springbok butterfly swimmer, Vernon Slovin, returned to South Africa after a four-year stint in America, where he had gained an international ranking and was at one time third in the world.
Suddenly there was a fresh challenge on the home front yard Keyter's competitive spirit was stimulated. "This was a new challenge for me," said Keyter. "It as a new incentive and I found myself fighting again."
And so the scene was set for the 1969 South African championships at Cape Town where the Keyter-Slovin confrontation was billed as one of the week's major highlights. Slovin, of Western Province, was determined to reclaim the butterfly titles he had relinquished while in America.
In the most magnificent race of his career, the nineteen-year-old Keyter rose to the occasion, timing his effort superbly and turning for the final lap of the 220 yards 'fly', half a body-length behind Slovin. With a powerful finishing burst he lunged for the wall to touch in the South African record time of 2 min. 12,1 sec., 0,3 sec. faster than Slovin.
His confidence high, the blond 6 ft. 4 in., 195 lb. Rhodesian beat the Slovin challenge again the next night smashing his own South African 110 yards 'fly' record by 0,5 sec. returning a time of 59,2 sec. Slovin stopped the watches at one minute dead.
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The rivalry continued a short time later in the South African Games at Bloemfontein, but Keyter stepped onto the starting blocks, not only with Slovin but also with a Welsh wizard named Martyn Woodroffe, a Silver Medal winner in the 200 metres 'fly' at the 1968 Olympic Games.
The trio fought a thrilling battle for the 100 metres butterfly Gold Medal and it needed elaborate timing equipment to separate them, Keyter getting the verdict in 59.6 sec., with only four hundredths of a second between them all. It was confirmation, indeed, that Keyter was in world class, even though in the 200 metres 'fly' the previous night, he had had to be content with the Bronze Medal, with a time of 2 min. 12,9 sec. behind Woodroffe (2 min. 11,9 sec.) and Slovin (2
min. 12,3 sec.).
Keyter s achievements that year were enough to make him a popular choice as the country's Sportsman of the Year and he was awarded the magnificent John Hopley Memorial Trophy at a glittering banquet at Salisbury.
He said: "I'm tremendously proud to have been honoured. All the things I've missed in the past — and will miss in the future — don't seem to matter anymore. But I only wish I could have done more to earn this." He remains the only swimmer to have been honoured as the nation's supreme sportsman.
Born in Kent England, where his father was a flying instructor during the War, John Keyter came to Rhodesia with his parents at the age of eight months.
Tall, with powerful shoulders and a slim waist he was destined to be the country's greatest male swimmer, pocketing eleven South African butterfly titles before retiring after the 1970 championships. Keyter's debut into the cauldron of Currie Cup competition was at Port Elizabeth in 1964, where he showed his rich potential as a fourteen-year-old by finishing fourth in the 220 and sixth in the 110 yards butterfly events.
But in 1965 he was to set the ball rolling for Rhodesia's 'golden era' of men's swimming, with champions like Chris Sherwell, Tony Fisher, Tony Mellon, Bob Hatherley, Rodney Hamilton, Ken Borain and Kim Brant dominating the South Afrcan men's scene until the early 1970s.
Keyter, now fifteen, took both 'fly' titles at the South African championships at Salisbury in 1965, and he retired in 1970 with both records and without losing the records in the pool. In these, the most gruelling of events, he had dropped just one championship race out of twelve over six straight years. That gave him an outstanding tally of eleven South African titles and made him the double champion five times, with Harold Pearce spoiling a perfect record by snatching the 110 'fly'in 1966 at Durban.
Keyter also won fifteen senior Rhodesian championship titles in his career from 1965-70 (one fewer than Rodney Hamilton's record), but he still holds the distinction of being the most prolific winner of South African titles produced by this country.
During the Keyter era, Rhodesian swimming was at a crest and the national team won the inter provincial Ellis Brown trophy for points aggregate at the South African championships for seven successive years, from 196U-bb.
Concerned that a land-locked country like Rhodesia, with a European population of no more than that of an average South African city, could have such a vice-like grip, the South African Amateur Swimming Union contrived to curtail this domination.
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They decided to separate diving and swimming into two aggregate competitions, thus effectively depriving Rhodesia of the Ellis Brown Trophy, because at the time, Rhodesia was totally dominating diving to the extent that they occasionally took the first four places in both men's and women's competitions.
Despite all his hard work in the water, Keyter went on only one overseas tour with the Rhodesian team, in 1966. This pioneering team was: C. Sherwel! (backstroke), H. Grimmer (individual medley), T, Fisher (breaststroke), J. Keyter (butterfly), T. Rossiter and D. Liebermann (both diving), Miss M. Simpson (freestyle) and Miss L Grant-Stuart (diving). Their manager was Ron Ward.
The team took part in the Amateur Swimming Association championships at Blackpool and the diving at Crystal Palace, London, with Keyter placed third in a controversial finish to the men's 110 yards butterfly. The first three clocked the same time.
On five occasions Keyter suffered the frustration of watching Springbok sides go overseas while he stayed at home, because, as a Rhodesian, he was not eligible.
Despite this serious drawback he reached a remarkable standard, thanks largely to his dedicated coach Frank Parrington, who guided four South African butterfly champions, starting with Syd Gibbons in 1962, then Keyter, Rodney Hamilton and David Lowe, who cracked Keyter's yellowing South African marks at Cape Town in 1977 and then headed for America on a scholarship.
Keyter was offered tempting American scholarships at various times, but declined them. In 1966 the famous Indiana University coach, Dr. J. Councilman, said in a letter to Frank Parrington: "I am very interested in John Keyter and the possibility of his attending Indiana University next year when he graduates from secondary school. I have been following his progress and I think he is one of the
outstanding young butterfly swimmers in the world."
"I think if he had gone he would have developed into a world beater," said Parrington wistfully.
By the end of 1970, having missed the Olympics and various Commonwealth Games, the spark went out in John Keyter. He had grown tired of swimming, averaging more than 200 miles a season in training, and clocking up an estimated 2 000 miles in his entire career.
He had won every honour open to him and there was no prospect of the country's stifling isolation ending.
"1 can promise there will be no comeback for me," he said. "Being a swimmer is a Spartan business and nobody can be a machine for ever. My major regret is that I never had the chance to swim in the Olympic Games."
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