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02 Aug 2012 10:11
Does a gold medal make up for having to share practice lanes with little old ladies and kids on their pool noodles? You betcha. But still... (Gallo)
A wide grin spreads across Cameron van der Burgh's face as he pulls out his phone to replay a YouTube clip.
It's of a group of black South Africans watching his 100m breaststroke final, cheering him on with every stroke, and then breaking into wild celebration as he reaches the wall in world record time.
"These guys are watching and you just see the enjoyment. They would probably never watch swimming.
You can just see how the whole country was pulled together on this – it's unbelievable.
It's only in hindsight, with the gold medal safely in the bag, that the 24-year-old can enjoy news from back home.
"Now to go back and look at it, it's touching. It's so overwhelming. I can't believe what we did for the country," he says.
In the day leading up to the race, though, Van der Burgh had shut himself off from the hopes of an expectant nation.
Time to prioritise
"The last 24 hours, from the semifinal to the final, was the most pressure I've ever felt in my whole life," he says. "It was the hardest thing I've ever had to do. After swimming the semifinal and posting such a good time, everybody knows it's yours to lose. All the pressure's on you."
Van der Burgh says that he didn't allow himself to be alone during those last hours.
"I've been working with a sports psychologist for the last six to eight months just for those last crucial 24 hours, because we knew how much pressure I'd be under and we've been trying to focus with how to deal with it," says Van der Burgh, who was passed on some tips to Chad le Clos before his younger teammate's 200m butterfly gold medal-winning performance.
"It's just things like deleting Twitter because you can't read those messages and think about gold. You've got to think about the little things, and about the race and executing it properly.
"When you think about what you can gain, about what a gold medal at the Olympic Games entails and how it can change your life, that freaks you out. And that puts too much pressure on. You get over-excited and you can't race properly. So the whole time I was just listening to music, trying to relax, get in the zone, chill out and be myself.
"I was saying to guys on the team: 'Listen, don't leave me alone, just stay with me and talk about normal things.' Because as soon as you're by yourself, then you start thinking, thinking, thinking – and that's a problem."
Time to relax
The soothing sounds of John Mayer proved to be key in the breaststroker's build-up to the race as Van der Burgh found himself getting overexcited just before it all began.
"About an hour and a half before the race started, I was stretching and doing sit-ups and stuff and in that phase I got too excited. I started getting dizzy and my heart rate was so high. So then I needed to listen to John Mayer and just breathe and calm down."
Just before the race, South Africa's DJ Euphonik was the music of choice though. "He sent me a couple of tracks before, so that was pretty cool – to pump me up."
The home vibe evidently did the trick as in just 58 seconds, Van der Burgh blew the rest of the world away. He pointed up to the sky to thank his friend and rival, world champion Alex Dale Oen, who died earlier this year after cardiac arrest, and could then finally lie back and breathe a massive sigh of relief.
"I say thank you to God, obviously, for what he's given me, like the ability, and I say thank you to Alex because I believe when someone who was such a big part of your life passes away, they always leave something behind. I feel like the guy was looking after me. And I think he was probably looking down on me laughing and saying – 'You bugger, how did you go that fast?'"
In going that fast, Van der Burgh became the country's first homegrown Olympic swimming champion post-isolation, with the likes of Penny Heyns, Roland Schoeman and Ryk Neethling all having trained in the United States. And Le Clos was soon to follow.
Time to invest
"For those other guys, it wasn't possible back then, because there weren't people like Sascoc coming to the party and helping out. So it was like the only option you had was to go to America, because then you were given the funding and you could race. I was given the opportunity from a young age though to race overseas and Sascoc have looked after me. I've had a few sponsors along the way as well who've enabled me to compete at any competition I want and have the equipment I need," says the grateful Van der Burgh.
"But 90% of the people on our team don't have that funding. Realistically, it's only a couple of guys that have it. If we can get more of them to have it then I think the whole team's level will rise dramatically. I think now, this just proves to Sascoc and to corporate South Africa what funding can really do – if they invest in Olympic athletes,' he adds.
While the fiercely patriotic star has made things work at home – and he's massively grateful for the support and sacrifice of his parents – his build-up to the Games hasn't always been the smoothest.
Just one of the challenges he's overcome is that for the past three winters, Van der Burgh has been powering past little old ladies and kids with pool noodles in the 25m pool at a local Virgin Active gym because the outdoor pools are simply too cold.
He points out that more investment and a centralised national training facility would be a massive step forward in ensuring 2016 will be an even happier hunting ground for the South African team.
"I think that's why we talk about sponsorships – we have such a rich gold mine of athletes in South Africa and I think we need to celebrate it more and invest more into it because it lifts the country up so much.
Time to dop
"You can see it on that YouTube clip. Sport unites people and I think that's the biggest present we can give South Africa," adds the new champion, who simply can't wait to get back to the country he loves so much to join the national celebration.
His manager, Ryk Neethling, has warned him that his life will be very different when he returns. And with people even stopping him on the London underground to offer their congratulations, Van der Burgh has already been given a hint of what's to come. But the down-to-earth Pretoria boy's plans are already in place for what's first on the agenda upon his return.
"I think the first thing I'm going to do is have a big braai and just relax with my mates," he reckons. "We've been away for so long, it'll be great to be with them again and celebrate. I'm going to have a dop and a chop … it'll be lekker."
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