Abreast of the best
Cameron van der Burgh can see himself on the podium in London in a little more than two months’ time, an Olympic medal around his neck – ideally gold – and singing the national anthem.
It is not arrogance; it is just an innate belief that he has done the hard work, is in the best shape ever and has given himself every opportunity of winning an Olympic medal.
“I could see that when I was 10 years old,” he said confidently. “If you can’t visualise it or believe in yourself, it’s never going to happen. I definitely believe it and have strong visions of that.”
Van der Burgh goes into the Games in London as one of South Africa’s best chances of winning a medal, four years after the national swimming team returned from Beijing with nothing to show.
The 24-year-old scoffs at the suggestion that he and his teammates may have something to prove.
Swimmer’s peak phase
“We’re not going to the Games thinking about past performances. It’s more a case of proving to ourselves and performing to the best of our ability.
“Last time we had a relatively old team, along with a lot of young guys like myself. No one was in that swimmer’s peak phase of 24 to 28. Now we have a couple of guys looking really good in that age bracket. We’re a lot more prepared and we’re ranked a lot higher.”
That said, only Van der Burgh, Chad le Clos, the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay team and the men’s medley relay team are genuine contenders for medals.
Le Clos is ranked the highest at third in the world in the 200m butterfly and Van der Burgh is ranked fourth in the 100m breaststroke. The rankings are based on times swum this year, but the young South African does not read too much into them, even though he finds himself behind the Japanese pair of Kosuke Kitajima and Ryo Tateishi, and Brazil’s Felipe Silva.
“The times at the moment don’t really mean much, because the conditions are all different,” said Van der Burgh. “I set mine at the nationals in Durban in difficult conditions, whereas Kitajima and Tateishi set theirs in Japan where they have great pool conditions on the level of a world championship.
“For me, though, it’s encouraging, because I normally go into championships ranked outside the medal places, as low as 15th or 20th, but now I’m ranked fourth, just a couple of months out.”
Van der Burgh’s fastest time this year is 58.90s, a second slower than Kitajima, and he makes no bones about the fact that the Japanese swimmer is the man to beat. Kitajima is the reigning Olympic champion over both 100m and 200m, having won the same titles in Athens in 2004, set numerous world records and claimed a host of world titles.
“He’s swum really, really well this year and he’s obviously a great competitor,” said Van der Burgh. “He’s the only guy I’m concerned about and if I take care of him the rest will follow.
“But the pressure isn’t on me – it’s on him. He knows that he’s the favourite and the man to beat. He’ll have a lot to deal with and I’m happy with my underdog tag.”
Van der Burgh is no slouch in the record stakes either. One forgets that he has only just turned 24, because he has been a constant on the world stage ever since setting three World Cup short-course world records in the 50m and 100m breaststroke in 2008.
Sobering wake-up call
Despite this success, his first taste of the Olympics ended in disappointment when he was eliminated in the semifinals of the 100m breaststroke in Beijing. It was a sobering wake-up call for the young star. Nonetheless, two more short-course world records followed in 2009, the same year he claimed his first long-course world championship title in the 50m breaststroke.
There was more World Cup short course success in 2010, but the year and 2011 were relatively quiet, by his own high standards, as he primed himself for a crack at the 2012 Olympic Games.
Van der Burgh does not have a world-ranked time in the 200m breaststroke so far this year, but the event is still on the table for him at the Olympics.
“Initially, I didn’t think I’d be in the condition to swim the 200m,” he said. “But, because I’m feeling strong and my times in training have been so good, I’m going to race the 200m now in Europe and if I qualify I’ll take it from there. But I don’t just want to compete in the heats at the Olympics. I want to go for a final or a medal.”
The thought of an Olympic medal has never been too far from Van der Burgh’s mind, ever since he saw television images of fellow breaststroke specialist Penny Heyns claiming double Olympic gold at Atlanta in 1996, when he was just eight.
“It’s my first Olympic memory. I didn’t know what the Olympic Games was until I saw her winning, her name in all the papers and how the whole country reacted. That was the first time I realised what an amazing achievement it was and how big the Olympics is.”
“I was actually a medley swimmer as a youngster, but she and Terence Parkin (breaststroke Olympic silver medallist in the 200m in 2000) had a big influence on my career and contributed to me concentrating on breaststroke.”
How fitting it would be 16 years later, should Van der Burgh now be in a position to emulate South Africa’s “golden girl” and walk away with Olympic gold.
If you listen to the athlete, it may not be that much of a stretch of the imagination.
“An Olympic medal is the pinnacle of our sport. As a swimmer, you get your confidence from what you do in training and I’ve never been as confident as I am right now. So, I’m in a really good place at the moment.”