Cape Town – Long-distance swimming legend and prominent Capetonian civic figure Theodore Yach has died while undergoing hospital tests for asthma.

The news was confirmed by the Cape Long Distance Swimming Association (CLDSA), who said in a statement: “South Africa’s most renowned open-water swimmer, Theodore Yach of Cape Town, passed away peacefully on October 17 (Wednesday).

“He was undergoing routine tests for an asthma condition when he collapsed and died in hospital.

“Theodore is a veteran of 108 Robben Island swims, an English Channel swim and many other international distance swims.

“He will be remembered as humble gentleman, who loved motivating the youth to achieve their dreams – he was a friend to all and took interest in all swimmers who shared his passion for sea swimming.”

Tributes have already followed on Twitter from prominent sports personalities.

Fellow swimmer and Ocean protection advocate Lewis Pugh (@LewisPugh), a United Nations Patron of the Oceans, wrote: “Devastated to hear of the passing of Theo Yach.

“One of the world’s great endurance swimmers. And so much more – family man, community leader, environmentalist. Rest in peace my friend.”

Leading former Test rugby referee Jonathan Kaplan (@RefJK) said:“I never knew Theo well but he had many interactions on social media.

“I had total admiration for his views on life and desire to push the limits of his body. I’m sad I never got to meet him. To his family, I wish you long life and much strength during this time. RIP champ.”

SA Olympic gold-medallist Ryk Neethling (@RykNeethling) described Yach’s passing as “terrible news”.

Charismatic Springbok and Western Province flank of the 1980s Rob Louw (@roblouw6) said: “Wow, can’t believe it … fellow Wynberg Boys High buddy and close friend who did the impossible by doing the Robben Island swim over 100 times has passed.

“What a gentleman and incredible athlete. Still shocked by the untimely news. RIP Theo.”

This writer, while based in the London office of the former Argus Group, accompanied Yach on his support boat across the English Channel on his first crack at the gruelling crossing in 1989.

Ahead of the attempt, some long-distance swim sages in his home city had said they feared he would fail as they felt he was simply too inexperienced and over-enthusiastic at the time; this duly occurred as he swallowed water from an oil slick in the busy shipping lanes and complained of stomach problems as a result.

But in a classic case of the “I get knocked down, but I get up again” virtue in sport, a better-prepared Yach triumphantly completed the crossing to France several years later, in 1996.

Yach was prominent in the property industry and charity work in his home city, and had been a recipient of the Mayor’s medal for civic contribution.

He leaves his wife Michelle and sons Daniel and David.


Written by: Rob Houwing