Courtesy: Kyle Lauf
He swam before he could walk. He raced ferociously in freestyle and backstroke from the age of 6 for twelve competitive years. His racing culminated in being awarded South African national colors for swimming. And he has been coaching now for over 40 years. Dean Price’s passion for swimming has colored his life.
On 13 November 1970, a headline in the sports pages of a South African newspaper stunned the local swimming community:
“World Time in Swimming set by Boy (11)”.
The 11-year-old boy in question was none other than Dean, now a well-known swimming coach, head of Johannesburg’s Mandeville Dolphins swimming club, and the current manager of Swimming South Africa’s high performance programme.
The news that made sports and lifestyle enthusiasts sit up and take notice was that this 11-year-old boy had won the men’s 1500m freestyle in a sensationally fast time. On top of that he’d beaten the senior Transvaal provincial swimming captain, Chris Lee, by 40 seconds. The race took place in a senior league gala at the Ellis Park 50-meter pool, in Johannesburg. Lee was then a student at Wits University while Price was still in primary school at King Edward Preparatory School (KEPS). The winning time was beyond fast – he stopped the clock at 19:22,50.
That wasn’t Dean’s first sports page headline. In 1959, at the tender age of 7 months, a newspaper photo showed Dean as a smiling toddler, afloat in the pool beside his mother, swimming coach Janet Price. The headline reads:
“Water baby Dean had first ‘dip’ at 3 months.”
The accompanying article explains how Dean would receive swimming lessons up to three times a day, and that he was able even at that young age to glide confidently underwater.
Now, more than 62 years later you will still find Dean next to a swimming pool. As one of South Africa’s best-known coaches and swimming personalities, Dean is ever-present at Gauteng, Grand Prix, and National Galas. He often accompanies swimmers for overseas events such as 2022’s Maccabi Games in Israel. Dean is always available for a chat on pool deck after club training, where he shares memories and advice.
His passion for swimming has been a colourful lifetime journey that took him around the world, from Johannesburg to Ohio and Texas in the United States and back to his home country again. It included national representation – Springbok colours in those days – and coaching at two Olympic Games in Atlanta 1996, and Sydney 2000.
Dean’s talent as a swimmer was obvious. It’s no less so as a coach, but he says,
“Passion is more important than talent. In the pool, it’s up to you. You’re not reliant on anybody else. You learn independence.”
After starting high school in South Africa, Dean moved to the USA to further his swimming. He started out in Cincinnati, Ohio staying with a family from the local swim community, before moving to Arlington, Texas where he completed his schooling while training every day with elite-level coaching.
After this time in Ohio and Texas, he returned to his homeland. In South Africa, he trained with Frank Gray in Durban from where he was awarded his Springbok blazer for the world-class times he was swimming. Unfortunately, Dean would not get the opportunity to swim at the Olympics. South Africa’s political and sports isolation as a result of the Apartheid system of racial segregation meant that athletes were barred from competing. But years later after the democratic transition in the country he went to the Olympics after all – as a coach at both Atlanta 1996 and Sydney 2000.
Then, more disappointment. At the age of 18 Dean was found to have muscular dystrophy, a disease with no known cure. It abruptly ended his swimming career. He could no longer compete competitively.
That is when Dean discovered transcendental meditation and started practising it as a treatment for his muscular dystrophy. Doctors confirmed that the progression of the disease was stopped because of it. Nevertheless, this setback meant his competitive swimming days were over.
So Dean took up coaching and became the best.
Dean says one of his top achievements was when South African prodigy Mandy Loots qualified for the Olympics after years of dedicated training with him. Mandy qualified for the 1996 Atlanta Games at the age of 15, then carried on to compete at two more Olympics. She had a glittering career in the water, achieving multiple South African records along the way. Her journey was about not giving up, not doubting herself, and pushing for the dream. In this way, her resilience resembled her coach’s. Michael Meyer was another South African swimmer who made it to the 2016 Rio Olympics after a similar life journey.
Dean’s coaching went from strength to strength, demonstrating the importance of resilience and discipline. He has coached Olympians, world champions, Commonwealth Games swimmers and many more. He reached the pinnacle of coaching with Olympic gold medalists Rijk Neethling and Kirsty Coventry (of Zimbabwe). He coached Natalie du Toit, one of the most decorated Paralympians of all time, who went on to win 13 Paralympic Gold medals.
Swimming has always been Dean’s sanctuary. He describes what swimming teaches:
“Swimming is unique. It’s a sanctuary of something good. It’s peaceful – you can escape from the world. In that pool, it’s a good place to be. In its pure form swimming is about people enjoying life. If it’s something you enjoy, you never leave the pool. It’s more than a sport – it’s a way to relate to others”
His memories of working with talented and passionate swimmers are full of personalities, antics and colorful stories. For example, he remembers old friends Kobus Scheepers and Tony Palmer whose character traits matched their talents: “Both were excellent swimmers and excellent people,” he says.
He remembers the great swimmers of his early years including Simon Gray, Paul Blackbeard, George Jacobson, Steve Nathan and Jon-Jon Parke.
“They were great swimmers but great friends too,” he says. “We had fun times. Relationships were more meaningful in the age before cell phones. People are the most precious commodity, the most important thing.”
It is clear his passion is unabated. Passion, talent, friendships and commitment characterize his life in swimming. He still heads up Mandeville Dolphins, a thriving, multi-venue club in the eastern suburbs of Johannesburg, affiliated with Eastern Gauteng Aquatics (EGA) and Aquatics Gauteng. Dolphins – or M-Dol – has over 200 registered swimmers across all levels.
His other role is overseeing Swimming South Africa’s high performance programme. It’s a position that requires him to keep up with world swimming trends, oversee the direction of competitive swimming in the country, and implement the structures to support those goals.
He concludes by saying, “We want to ensure that there are opportunities for swimmers at every level, every age group.” He adds, “We want every one of our swimmers to feel they’ve achieved something special, to be part of that journey.”
Needless to say, his journey in swimming has had many other ups and downs. But he has stuck with it with tenacity and dedication, achieving success and a life that has impacted generations of swimmers. His passion for the sport is still evident. He is still dedicated to his lifetime’s work. Yet, he counts the many lasting relationships as the pinnacle of his achievements.
ABOUT KYLE LAUF
Kyle Lauf is a Swimming Dad of three teenagers based in Johannesburg, South Africa. He volunteers as a timekeeper or team manager at his children’s galas, while teaching high school during the week.
Dean is one of the nicest and most patient coaches I have ever met. Such a great guy who has always made time for me on pool deck. Thank you Dean.
Amazing coach and friend! His passionate coaching and teachings afforded me the opportunity to receive a full scholarship in the USA. I remained in the USA after college and became a Professor of Biology. I also coached a D2 College team for 12 years (2008 to 2019).