Skip to content Skip to sidebar Skip to footer

Breath of fresh air

By Gary Lemke

Cameron van der Burgh was walking down the street in Pretoria when a gorgeous blonde approached him. ‘Hey, you look just like my boyfriend!’ A flattered Van der Burgh looked at her and said, ‘Do you have a sister?’ That blonde was Minki van der Westhuizen.

South Africa’s latest swimming superstar hasn’t met Graeme Smith, yet, but the pair have things in common. To some he’s a dead ringer for ‘Biff’, with their similar prominent jawlines and 48-hour stubble. However, there is more to the pair than a physical resemblance.

At 22, Smith was thrust into the international glare, and at 22 Van der Burgh now finds himself in a different stratosphere ÔÇ¿to where he was a month ago.

But the big difference is that while Smith was handed the Proteas cricketing reins after the meandering years of Shaun Pollock, Van der Burgh ripped them away from the old order of world-beating swimmers, who included 30-year-old Olympic medallist Roland Schoeman.

Van der Burgh is the leader of the pack of hungry youngsters sending their calling cards to every world and Olympic champion out there. Yes, Michael Phelps, you included.

At the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, Van der Burgh wore his heart on his sleeve and the words ‘Ke Nako’ on the palms of his hands. His time is now, and he’s making sure South Africa’s moment has arrived too. A total of 16 medals came from the ÔÇ¿pool, with Van der Burgh winning two golds and his 18-year-old room-mate in India, Chad le Clos, capturing two golds, a silver and a bronze. Plus, Wendy Trott, Riaan Schoeman, Jean Basson and Jan Venter were among those who all seized the moment.

‘There’s definitely a changing of the guard in swimming. I’m not saying guys like Roland are on their way out, but what I am saying is that there’s a new group coming through. I carried the flag at the opening ceremony, which was an unbelievable honour, and then I won two golds. That was such a wow experience, but I got as much satisfaction from Chad’s success.

‘I might only be 22 but I’m loving being the ÔÇ£captainÔÇØ; I’m passing down to the others all that I’ve learnt over the past few years. For instance, Chad wanted to wear slops when walking around the village, but I told him to rather wear shoes because they’re better for you. Slops work your calves, but shoes offer total support.’

Van der Burgh decided moments before his 100m breaststroke final to have ‘Ke Nako’ written on the inside of his palms. ‘Jason Dunford of Kenya had just won Kenya’s first-ever Commonwealth gold, and my final warm-up felt really good. I was just sitting there listening to my music and I thought, ÔÇ£What an incredible year. We had a fantastic 2010 World Cup, we showed what we can do.
Now Kenya have won a gold for Africa and I’m feeling good. Chad has already won our first gold. We must carry on pushing South Africa and our continent. It’s our time.ÔÇØ’

Physiotherapist Grace Hughes wrote the words on his palms and fleetingly thought, ‘How is he going to wave to the crowd at the pre-race introductions without showing the writing?’ She needn’t have worried, the South African kept his hands close ÔÇ¿to his chest.

Van der Burgh’s celebrations launched a thousand flashbulbs in the aquatic centre that night of 6 October. Many didn’t know what ‘Ke Nako’ meant ÔÇô immediate reaction ranged from thinking it was a message to his girlfriend or a clumsy attempt at ambush marketing, KFC perhaps? ÔÇô but they now do.

It’s time.

And the world also now knows where South Africa is. It is a country, not a region, like West, East or North Africa.

Van der Burgh doesn’t have time for shirkers and merit is the only criteria for team selection. And if you get the opportunity ÔÇô he refers to it as a privilege ÔÇô to represent your country, you grab it with both hands.

‘What Khotso Mokoena and Simon Magakwe did by refusing to travel to India was a disgrace and an insult to our flag.

‘If Sascoc passed the athletes fit to come to India they should have been here. Never say no when your country calls you. Our swimmers went to the African Championships, and I’d be lying if I said we were looking forward to that. Dude, it was …’ He doesn’t finish, and he doesn’t need to, his expression tells the story of an unpleasant experience. ‘But, we went and we won.’

Van der Burgh might be 22, as he is often reminded, but he is getting awfully used to winning. The list of titles keep coming. In long-course breaststroke (an Olympic-sized 50m pool) he can write on his business card: World champion 100m. Commonwealth Games gold 50m and 100m. World record-holder 50m. Short-course (25m) status is: Overall World Cup champion. World record-holder 50m and 100m.

More will follow, but such is the maturity of the young man that he knows that while everything he touches right now turns to gold, there will be days ÔÇô and even extended periods ÔÇô when things don’t go right. ‘It’s how one deals with defeat and while I’m a positive person and addicted to winning, I know that when I lose I remember what it feels like, how much it hurts and that makes me work harder than ever to get back on top.

‘After my 100m win at the Commonwealth I saw a picture in the paper the following morning. I was with my gold and so happy, but in the background was an Australian who I had beaten and he looked devastated. That’s not somewhere I want to go but if and when I do, I will deal with it.’

Van der Burgh didn’t even watch or recall the 1996 Olympics. Those were the Atlanta Games where Penny Heyns became the only women’s breaststroker to do the 100, 200m double. ‘Hey dude, I was, like eight at the time?’ I suddenly feel old, because ÔÇ¿Le Clos, the other tiro who conquered the Commonwealth, was just four when South Africa enjoyed their finest moments in ÔÇ¿the pool.

Atlanta feels even more the age of the dinosaur when one considers the technology at the time. Cellphones were practically the size of a brick, with an attached aerial for better reception. Now Van der Burgh carries a Blackberry where he is constantly ‘tweeting’. And the world is not only watching him, it’s following him too.

‘Dude, when I got to India I had something like 200 followers. But since I carried the flag in the opening ceremony and then ÔÇ¿won gold I have been getting around a hundred new followers on Twitter every day.’ By the time he finished swimming on ÔÇ¿9 October, he was up to 1 165.

His tweets have been a breath of fresh air. While there was general hysteria over what to expect on arrival in New Delhi, with bridges collapsing, an athletes village that was deemed ‘unliveable’, snakes being found in rooms, Dengue fever and ÔÇ¿the threat of terrorism, Van der Burgh landed on Indian soil on 30 September and promptly told his followers: ‘Delhi immigration! Pretty impressive.’

What followed was the positive attitude from a genuine humble hero.
1 October: Loving Delhi so far! Feeling very honoured to be ÔÇ¿the flag-bearer.
2 October: Loving the food in the village! Spicy
3 October: Amazing vibe here!!! Got the flag! am so excited to walk out! Feels like I’ve already won the gold medal!!!
4 October: CHAD LE CLOS!! Remember that name! GOLD!!!!!
6 October: After race celebrations! :) KENAKO!!

And so it went on. What you see is what you get with this new golden generation.

While Van der Burgh was born to lead he wasn’t necessarily born to swim. ‘I only really became aware of swimming at the 2004 Games in Athens, and was 16. I watched the guys win the 4x100m freestyle gold. And that sorted of kick-started everything.’

Part of that ‘Awesome Foursome’ in Athens was Ryk Neethling, who is now Van der Burgh’s manager. He has nothing but the highest of praise for the breaststroke champion, along with Le Clos, who some excitedly say will become the most decorated South African swimmer of all time.

‘I see Cameron on a daily basis as part of my swim team and his professionalism is evident. He knows where he wants to go┬á┬á with his career and makes my job as manager pretty easy. He’s easily the most powerful swimmer in the world right now. He ÔÇ¿has made some tough choices to master the 100m and that is the only goal over the next 18 months,’ he said.

But while South Africa comes to expect the results from its athletes, the corporate sector needs to wake up to the fact that without money even the most gifted kids in the world won’t fulfil their potential. A mediocre rugby or soccer player, or ordinary cricketer is far more pampered and assisted than a bunch of kids who put everything on the line for a gold medal that doesn’t come with a cash component.

One has become so immune to the ‘Fat Cat Culture’, where failed chief executives get massive multi-million payouts that you can sympathise with a group of world-class sporting ambassadors who need to beg and borrow to be able to make South Africa proud.

But they appreciate every shiny R5 coin they get. ‘In the past 18 months Sascoc has helped with funding and the results are there for all to see.’ But the funding is minimal compared with their Australian, British or United States counterparts.

During his fortnight in the athletes village in New Delhi, Van der Burgh was inundated with media requests and did countless radio and television interviews. Not once did he wave anyone away, nor did he turn down a request for an autograph as he came to terms with his new-found fame.

‘I was in that position once. I was at my first major international meet in Japan and the then breaststroke world champion Kosuke Kitajima was my hero. He was in the change room shaving for the event and I recognised him and finally plucked up the courage to ask him for his autograph. He was so cool with it, and it’s quite funny because now he comes up to me ÔÇô and it’s only been four years!’

While Van der Burgh admits that most of the swimmers on the circuit ‘get along with each other’ he doesn’t have ‘friendships’ with his rivals, particularly the Australians. ‘That would take something of the edge off the rivalry as far as I’m concerned. ÔÇ¿I want to beat them, not cuddle them’.

There was a time when any Australian swimmer who stood next to a South African on the starting blocks would be such an intimidating presence that it was virtually race over before the buzzer had sounded. Not anymore. In New Delhi, Van der Burgh came up against 100m world champion and world record-holder Brenton Rickard.

He beat the Australian and beat him well, winning in a Commonwealth Games record time of 1min 00.10sec. A marker for next year’s World Championships perhaps? London in 2012? ‘I have dreamed of gold for years now and the 100 is the focus, because there is no 50m event.’

And what of post-London? ‘I have to think of my future and I’m studying financial management at Unisa. I have to start that career and the 2016 Olympics might be too far away. Then again, the 50m will be introduced as an Olympic discipline, so I might ÔÇ¿go for it. But I’ll be getting old,’ he laughs.

Yes, he will. Van der Burgh will be the ripe age of 28 when Rio de Janeiro comes around, and given the trail he and others like Le
Clos are blazing, future generations will have been so inspired by his achievements and his infectious patriotism and spirit that they too will be champing at his heels.

But for now, Van der Burgh and the new golden generation have two words to say: ‘Ke Nako!’

Lemke is Publishing Director of Highbury Safika Media and attended the Commonwealth Games. This story first appeared in Business Day Sports Monthly