Simons Town, December 1992. Another south-easter, another race and I’m nursing a broken wrist. As an aspiring albeit injured teenage triathlete now unable to compete in the opening Olympic distance triathlon of the season, I have eagerly volunteered to help out at the event as race marshall directing traffic and handing out water sachets to my fellow competitors.
But at least I’ll have a front seat view of the action.
About twenty minutes before the race start, I notice a large, familiar figure resembling a local fisherman casually walking down from the terraced parking area overlooking Long Beach wheeling a Lejeune 753 bicycle complete with shoes clipped in the pedals and carrying a shopping bag slung over his broad shoulders.
“Do you okes know where I can find a floor pump? My tyres are a bit pap”, remarks the barefoot stranger resplendent in old Dulux stained tracksuit pants and top and a Longmile visor.
This guy is no stranger. It’s Keith Anderson – South Africa’s finest triathlete, UCT graduate, fisherman and legendary waterman.
If there was ever a larger than life character who touched the lives of so many with amazing humility and understatement, it was Keith.
A few weeks ago, the annual Keith Anderson Memorial surski race took place at one of “Sporty’s” favourite stomping grounds, Fish Hoek beach. Fellow paddlers participated in this annual event, commemorating the tragic passing one of South Africa’s finest sporting exports six years ago.
If one thinks back to South African sport in the 1980s, we were blessed with a plethora of exceptional talent, which combined with healthy dose of “gees” and personality, created true legends across all sporting codes.
Tales of Anderson’s athleticism are legendary within South African sporting circles.
“I was in the Navy Diving School with Keith when he started training for the first time
in 1985,” recalls friend and fellow triathlete Barry van Jaarsveld. “We were testing some new diving equipment one day when we dropped an expensive communication receiver. Seeing as our deep-dive time for the day was over, Keith asked if he could go down without air and fetch it. The guys who developed the communication system just chuckled and said that it was impossible.”
“In the meantime Keith had disappeared and reached the bottom with almost zero visibility, found the “com receiver” and surfaced with it two and a half minutes later. Try and hold your breath for two and a half minutes and remember it costs you air and energy to free dive.”
“Keith was already a bit of a legend at South African Navy Diving School.”
With his national service complete, Anderson turned his attention to the growing sport of triathlon. It was a time where sponsors were keen to get involved a booming sport were the top finishers and back of the pack athletes alike rubbed shoulders at the start and celebrated hard afterward.
After instant success, Anderson quickly became a dominant figure on the SA scene along with Durbanite, Manfred Fuchs.
In a time where this new sport was becoming professional, Keith decided to to take his talents abroad embedding himself in the American elite triathlon circuit. During the 1987 Ironman World Championship in Hawaii, talk of the event centered around an unheralded South African athlete cycling in little else but a Speedo swimsuit putting the hurt on the illustrious lead pack. Initially mistaken for an errant “spectator on wheels”, Anderson was later acknowledged as “that mysterious South African guy with a beer-belly having a stellar bike ride” by the NBC commentators.
While a always fearless competitor, Keith possessed the ability to mix it with the best on a fraction of the training of most of his competition. With the natural talent and resilience to rival Rocky Balboa, he had the innate ability to reach peak fitness in a matter of weeks after an extended period of partying, fishing and sporadic training.
Case in point the early 1990′s.
The predecessor to the Totalsports Challenge of today was an event known as the Good Hope 100, a relay event comprising road running, cycling, surfskiing, ocean swimming, windsurfing finishing off with a K1 canoe leg at Peninsula Canoe Club at Zandvlei.
Still a student at the University of Cape Town, Keith was a natural cycling choice for the varsity team that year, whom were among the favourites for line honours. Some ill feeling arose when it emerged that a fellow student, who incidentally was the current national time trial champion, was left off the team in favour of a triathlete. Ever the
diplomat, Anderson suggested a selection “duel” on the West Coast Road, whereby whoever beat who would be the cycling representative for Team UCT.
After arriving at the start venue for their “trial”, Keith’s competitor was warming up on stationary rollers readying himself for battle against the Speedo clad triathlete. Needless to say, Keith put several minutes into his challenger, thereby cementing his place as the “Ikey” cyclist for the upcoming relay. He then proceeded to drop Willie Engelbreght
up Chapman’s Peak on race day.
There are a dozen more stories like the above examples and sure, some have been embellished along the way. But the underlying factor in all of these yarns remains: Keith was a one in a million character. Competitive, yet humble. Immensely popular, yet down to earth. Unassuming, yet highly articulate.
All of these qualities remained unchanged once he retired from triathlon to focus on family, business and a new found sporting passion in surfski paddling.
Former neighbour and friend John Andrew recalls Keith inquiring about his training whilst preparing for the 1995 World Triathlon Championships in Cancun, Mexico: “Keith would always ask me how MY training was going, never talking about himself. He then found out that I had made the SA team to go to the Cancun World’s and rocked up at my house one night to accompany me on one of my interval running sessions. Bearing in mind that he had not run for years, he was out there with me doing these one thousand metre reps dressed in a pair of old, ripped Poly Shorts and a pair racing flats. And I was tearing myself apart just trying to keep up with him.”
Nearly twenty years on from that windy Saturday morning in Simon’s Town, the sight of Keith participating in that event purely for fun is as clear in my mind as ever. As he pedaled out of the transition area in the same massive gear that he had probably left his bike in two years prior, he smiled at us young volunteers, acknowledging us for giving up
our morning to wave flags and stop traffic.
As they say: form is temporary. Class is permanent.