/ 16 August 2012

Van der Burgh’s gold rush in slow motion

Olympic hero Cameron van der Burgh packed four years of training into less than a minute of  racing  to win himself a lifetime of memories.
Olympic hero Cameron van der Burgh packed four years of training into less than a minute of racing to win himself a lifetime of memories.

South African swimmer Cameron van der Burgh (24) makes smashing the world record and winning the gold medal in the 100m breaststroke at the Olympic Games in London sound as easy as brushing your teeth.

"Instead of going out there thinking this is my shot, I think it is business as usual, I've done this race a million times," he tells me over a water at a media house in Sandton where he is doing four days of back-to-back interviews.

"Focus on the small things: my dive, my pull-off, my turn. When I'm on the block, I clear my mind, I think of nothing, get in the zone … it's like brushing your teeth. You don't think 'I must unscrew the cap, squeeze the toothpaste' … it just sort of happens. It happens but you guide it to see that it goes to plan."

A very brutal tooth-brushing it seems.

"I'm really fortunate that I achieved something, but if you can picture going to varsity for four years and there's one exam. And you write this final exam and you fail and you have to go back to day one … that's what it's like if you lose. Sport is really brutal and you see so many people coming back from the races and they just pull their tops over themselves and lie on the floor in tears and say: 'Four years of my life have been for nothing'."

In the world where many sports people will get gold for inarticulateness and set world records for cliché-peddling, Van der Burgh is refreshing in his intelligence and eloquent ability to take you to that day nearly three weeks ago when he bashed the 100m breaststroke world record with an astonishing time of 58.4 seconds.

Activated and firing
"One hour 40 minutes before the race I arrive at the pool, then I relax for 10 minutes, chill, chat, whatever," he explains.

"One hour 30 before I stretch for 15 minutes, just clearing my mind. I listen to a bit of music – any music, it doesn't matter.

"The next 15 minutes I do abs, push-ups, just to get the muscles activated and firing, to feel the power."

He starts talking faster. You can see in the far-off look in his eyes that he is back in London as he recounts.

"Then, with an hour to go, I jump into the water, do a warm-up [in the warm-up pool, out of sight of the crowd or TV audience], get a good feel of the water, get the rhythm, you don't do any intense work, it is just to warm up the body.

"I get out of the water. With 40 minutes to go, I drink a cup of coffee.

"I chill. With 30 minutes to go, I put on the racing suit; with 20 minutes to go, I have to report to the call room. Then I put music on, or I will walk with my coach and we will have a little talk, slap my thighs."

Go out fast
What did your coach say to you?

"He said: 'This is it: you go out fast, you give it everything, you give it four years of hard work'.

"When we're in the call room, I listen to house music, I listen to a lot of DJ Euphonik's music – that gets me into my own groove.

"You go from one call room, where they check your cap and your goggles for branding, to the second call room.

"The second call room is right by the pool and that is when a lot of guys freak out because you hear the crowd going crazy …"

It is an average Monday afternoon as he tells me this, but I'm beginning to feel tense.

"I just have my music on and I'm in my own zone, just listening, just chilling. I don't get freaked out then, I just focus on myself. Luckily, it's not a team sport and we have our own lanes. You just focus on your own race. It's not as tactical as athletics."

The party
"You go out there," Van der Burgh smiles and claps his hands, "and here begins the party!

"I'm not freaked out by the crowd. I love to race, I live to race, so when there is no pressure, I don't swim fast because there is nothing to lose.

"I love to race on the world stage. When I go out I feed off the crowd, I love it, I get so excited and pumped up. I think some guys get drained because they get scared …

"I walk out, a lot of people don't take the moment in, I walk out and I'm calm.

"I walk out and I look at the stand. I'm so calm I can almost recall

everybody's face in the stand. Walking, taking it in, looking, I remember there were three South African flags on the left and two on the right.

"The race is over so quickly, but the moment, you savour it … you work four years to get to that point, so enjoy it."

Van der Burgh takes us on to lane  four's starting block.

'Use your back'
"We go down, wait for the buzzer. Start! Make sure you have a good entry, have a good streamline, then I do the pool dive and break out.

"When you hit the water, underwater, it is quiet, you break out racing, you hear the crowd …

"I make sure that my head is down on the break-out so that I don't push myself against water. I'm continuing the momentum from the dive so I push through, the first 25m you find the stroke, I pick up the frequency because the dive speed is very high so I continue the momentum from the dive … By now the crowd is going crazy …"

What does it smell like in the pool?

"Mmmmm … smell like?" He pauses, grins: "Like gold!

"I don't talk to myself when I'm swimming, it is that thing, it's pre-programmed, I've swam the race a million times, but every now and then, I hear my trainer's voice in my head, 'use your back, use your back' and I'll do that. These things pop through from your subconscious.

"The last 5m into the wall, I speed up so that the turn can be quick and very powerful.

"In breaststroke, you're not that aware [of the opponents], only on the turn can you see everybody. But when you're swimming, you don't look sideways, because it breaks the rhythm, it breaks the stroke …

A good one
"Then you have a good streamline, the first three strokes out of the water is crucial in that you maintain again, build the speed. The first three strokes must be powerful.

"The next three strokes, I don't power as much in my arms, in fact not for the rest of the race. I just focus on my legs. Your legs are the biggest muscles, they last the longest.

"Your arms are mainly to maintain the body position so that you're able to maintain that speed. Once you have that speed, you're just maintaining it. The problem is when you get tired, the body position drops in the water, then you're fighting and you're pushing against the water. Instead of going over, you're going into it.

"The last 10m, you're just giving it everything you've got.

"There is, when you touch the wall, this excruciating pain, lots of lactate, and then you look over your shoulder to see the time – and it is a good one!

"You touch, you look, but you're a bit disorientated because you're in so much pain. As you touch the block first, it will light up immediately and the crowd will know you're first."

Where is it sore? "Everywhere! But it's amazing when you look up at the board and know the past four years have been worth it. It's like the perfect ending to a story."