In the 1960s he defied his peers and spent his days learning to swim. Today, "they all come to me for training", says Gus Malgas.
IT'S hard to pull myself away from the sparkling pools at Ellis Park. I suspect it's not the enticing, shimmering blue water but the enthusiasm and affable manner of Gus Malgas that makes it so difficult.
That enthusiasm is infectious ? swimmers seem to swim harder because of it, and the atmosphere at the pool, even in winter, is friendly and inviting. The pools ? a heated 25 metre, an Olympic-size 50 metre, a 5m deep diving pool and a small circular children's pool ? are open from 7am to 7pm all year round, and are very busy, with swimmers coming and going, looking refreshed and relaxed.
Malgas, the aquatics manager for Region 8, is busy at the heated pool, teaching lifesavers for the city's 69 swimming pools. He calls out: "Swim with your patient's head out of the water", "Don't lose eye contact with your patient," and "Ek wil nie stories hoor nie." The swimmers do as they're told, good-naturedly.
He turns to me, "They need to have strong legs." He looks over at them again, "Hold one another's shoulders ? now push your partner down." This exercise, he explains, builds strong legs.
Malgas, a tall, large man with hints of grey in his moustache and cropped hair, smiles easily and has no trouble getting the mostly burly blokes and several girls in the pool to do what he wants.
The swimmers swim backwards towards one edge, holding their "patients" under the chin, pulling them along. Malgas asks a swimmer to get out of the pool, then demonstrates exactly how it should be done, pulling the wet swimmer against his grey sweater.
The swimmers have to be able to swim 400 metres in under eight minutes to qualify to become lifesavers. They are taught rescue breathing, CPR, paediatric protocols, vomit drill, spinal injury management, resuscitation and tow line throwing. They also need to know about pool management, which includes things like filter pumps, purification and chemicals. They qualify with a Lifeguard Award and every year have to be retested, to check that they are still fit and have kept up to date with techniques and technology.
Once qualified, these lifeguards can do voluntary duty on beaches and in dams and are called in to work at events like the Midmar Mile in KwaZulu-Natal, where 150 lifeguards are needed.
Training for 29 years
Malgas, 44, has been training swimmers for the past 29 years. He started swimming at the age of eight and still swims almost every day at Ellis Park. He won inter-club competitions while still at school, and went on to represent the then Transvaal in 1976. That same year he won his first lifesaver award and in 1982 qualified as a lifesaver instructor. In 1992 he became a senior examiner for and president of the Gauteng Lifesaving Association, a position he held for eight years. He picked up a silver medal at the 1998 World Lifesaver Championships in New Zealand.
After Malgas qualified as a lifeguard in 1976, he would rescue about 18 people a day from the pools at Ellis Park. "I decided it was getting too much ? it was easier to teach them to swim," he smiles. So he started teaching at Hillbrow swimming pool, getting 300 people a year to swim.
Malgas, together with his colleague Pat Wilcox, has trained about 80 lifeguards for the city. "No-one else in Gauteng is doing this," he says.
Wilcox has worked with Malgas for 15 years, and she sums him up as a man who never compromises. "He's always been a man of action rather than planning. He doesn't see obstacles, and will happily waive the fee if a swimmer can't afford it."
Built in 1904
The high-dive pool and the 50m pool at Ellis Park were built in 1904, says Malgas, while the 25m heated pool was built in 1999 for the All Africa Games.
Olympic gold swimmer Ryk Neethling trains at the Ellis Park pools and 40 percent of the members of the South African 2006 Commonwealth Games team trained there too.
Dean Price, Neethling's trainer and a swimmer who has represented South Africa internationally, is busy training top junior swimmer Melissa Alberts in the 25m pool. He says the two main pools at Ellis Park are the only 25m and 50m pools at one venue in the country, and therefore it is the perfect venue for top-level training. Neethling, who returned to South Africa two years ago after living in the US for seven years, has settled in Johannesburg.
Another reason the Ellis Park pools are popular and always busy is that training at high altitude, which means that swimmers are training with less oxygen, results in their becoming much fitter with the same workout as those at the coast.
Back in the 1960s
Malgas says Price's mother, Janet, taught him to swim back in the late 1960s. She lived in Northcliff then and used to collect him and other swimmers from their school in Riverlea, a journey of about 20 kilometres, and take them to her pool at home. He says they were labelled as sell-outs, for mixing with whites and forgetting their background.
"Now they [his peers] appreciate the history and the reason, and now they can relate to the sport. I am one of the only people who can help everyone [in swimming]," he says.
But it wasn't easy in those apartheid days. "We had to get a permit to come and swim at Ellis Park," he says. "My first swimming race was against Dean here."
Malgas concludes, "They all come to me for training now."