Once upon a time, Cameron van der Burgh trained in the icy waters of the Kruger National Park. Now he’s become an overnight sensation and South Africa’s first gold medalist of the 2012 Olympic Games – a poster boy for the spirit in which the Games should be played. By ANT SIMS.
When Cameron van der Burgh sprawled out on the ropes after breaking a world record and bagging South Africa’s first gold at the London Olympics on Sunday, there was a twinkle in his eye.
An understandable reaction, of course. But it wasn’t the twinkle of what he had just achieved. It wasn’t the reward of incessant hard work of four years finally paying off, and it wasn’t the thrill of winning which had spilled from his heart to his eyes.
After crawling out of the pool, Van der Burgh paid tribute to his late training partner, Alexander Dale Oen.
"I just have to pay tribute to Alex tonight. I know he has been with me this year; I think he helped me finish the race in such a strong manner," Van der Burgh said.
"Alexander pushed me in training. It made me realise I had to go faster to win the gold medal. That is what we trained for, and that is what we have achieved."
“In 2007 [and] 2008, Alex helped me so much and took me under his wing. When I touched the wall tonight, I looked up to the sky and thought he was probably looking down, laughing and saying: ‘How can you go that time?’
“He really had such an influence on my career,” Van der Burgh added.
Dale Oen died earlier this year from after suffering a heart attack, which was caused by undetected coronary heart disease, a rarity for somebody of his athletic stature. And while the dedication tribute might seem small to some, it’s a reminder of just what makes sport – and in particular the Olympics – so special.
Beyond the gold medals and the competitiveness lies the spirit in which sport should be played. While all sport should be played hard and fair, the human element makes it special and unique, and the swimmer’s tribute to a fallen competitor is a heart-warming reminder of the connection which stretches beyond the results on the field or in the pool.
Van der Burgh’s gold medal was South Africa’s first of the Games, and his world record of 58.46 seconds for the men’s 100m breaststroke was a runaway success for the athlete who had spent the last four years preparing for the challenge.
He had made it to the semi-finals of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, and the 24-year old said that his achievement in the pool on Sunday was one of the best feelings of his life.
"Tonight, as I came in, I said to myself, 'A man can change his stars; you can write your own destiny tonight'. I had my chance and I took it. It's a feeling I can't describe right now. It has been a lot of work in the making. Everything has paid off tonight," he said.
"If there is such a thing as the perfect race, I think I swam it at the right time tonight.”
For van der Burgh, the victory was more about the medal than the world record, though, and with that ever-present twinkle in his eye, he spoke of just how much the medal meant to him.
"I don't really care about the world record. Once you have become an Olympic champion, that can never be taken away from you. I can tell my kids when they are watching one day that I did that,” Van der Burgh added.
"One gold is better than Beijing already. If we can continue with this momentum, that would be good."
Van der Burgh has worked hard to reach the level he is at and he had, until recently, trained in a 25-metre pool at his local gym before moving to an Olympic-sized one. He changed his diet and kept on swimming to help shave seconds off his time. Along with his coach, Dirk Lange, and Ryk Neethling, the youngster persisted and has achieved – becoming an overnight hero in a country obsessed with all manner of sports.
"It is good for the sport [in South Africa], but we have some big things that we have to change back home. We don't have any pools, so there is work to be done," Neethling said in an interview with Reuters.
"Hopefully we can capitalise on this. We didn't capitalise on Athens when we won, so hopefully we can do it this time."
Sascoc has set Team South Africa the target of 12 medals in this year's Games, and Van der Burgh has another chance to help add to that tally when he takes part in the 4 x 100metre medley relay later in the week. With his stars shining brightly upon him and his mind in the right place, another gold medal would be a fitting end for South Africa’s new golden boy to end his Olympic campaign. DM
Photo: Cameron van der Burgh of South Africa smiles with his gold medal during the men's 100m breaststroke victory ceremony at the London 2012 Olympic Games at the Aquatics Centre July 29, 2012. Van der Burgh also set a world record time of 58.46 seconds. REUTERS/Michael Dalder