Cameron van der Burgh has never lacked determination to go with a punishing training regime, world-class talent and a steely mentality, which when all thrown together make him one of the greatest breaststroke swimmers in history, writes GARY LEMKE in the Gold Coast.
This will be his third, and final Commonwealth Games and at the age of 29 – he’s 30 in May – he finds himself as the senior statesman in South Africa’s swim squad. It’s a role he is enjoying and embraces as he looks to make the most of his Games hurrah. It’s not the end of the lane for him mind you, but realistically, he knows that the Gold Coast is the final time he’ll be at one of these four-yearly multi-code events.
In Delhi, he dominated the breaststroke and won two gold medals, and a relay silver, and in Glasgow in 2014 he came up against England’s Adam Peaty, who is rewriting the breaststroke records, but still picked up a gold in the 50m, silver in the 100m and bronze in the 4x100m medley.
Back in Glasgow, Van der Burgh cut a frustrated, despondent figure, a shadow of the irresistible force that he had been at the 2012 London Olympics, where he won the 100m gold in world record time.
‘I’m in a really good space, both with my swimming and in my life in general,’ he said. ‘In 2014/15 I probably put too much in one basket and I wasn’t in love with swimming any longer. But I have stuck it out and I’ve fallen in love with the sport again towards the tail of my career. Everyone who has been through the process will tell you that you start off loving the sport and then things start taking their toll, but you finish off rekindling that love for swimming that you started with.’
Love, in and out of the water, and a balanced and healthy lifestyle makes Van der Burgh a dangerous customer at the Gold Coast. He has completely revamped his diet and has switched to cross-fit training, with the result that he reckons his weight is at a better level than it was in 2012/13, he’s feeling as healthy as he ever has and he has a wedding to look forward to in Athens in July.
Asked about his chances against Peaty, the undeniable gold medal favourite, Van der Burgh said: ‘I never go into any race expecting to lose. I always have a positive attitude and I’m feeling good, excited. Last season was a nice little test to see where I was and we’ve amplified the parts that worked well. Being a last Commonwealth Games, you come in with a different attitude, take your time, enjoy the village, your teammates and the environment.’
He has also assumed that senior role and relishing it. The swim squad have a youthful look and they will be benefiting enormously from a champion who has seen everything there has to in this demanding sport. ‘I suppose the kids look up to me. I’m getting the guys into groups and getting them stretching, for instance. A lot of young kids don’t stretch, and it’s important to. So, I’m doing the leading, in that aspect. It’s the way I was taught.
‘Also, when we meet in the dining hall, I’m saying to them, “walk me through this meal that you’re eating”. There are piles of pizza, carbs, and only a slither of broccoli … and I’m making them aware, although not forcing them to make changes to their diet.’
Van der Burgh has high hopes for the South Africans at these Games and expecting big things from Chad le Clos, while he also feels Ayrton Sweeney is a potential 400m IM medallist.
The 12,500-seater open air swimming pool has attracted some criticism in recent times, given that the weather can be unpredictable, sun one moment, rain the next and chilly in the evening, but Van der Burgh feels it’s to South Africa’s advantage.
‘It’s probably not going to be the fastest championships because of the outdoor elements, but that suits us. We, South Africans are generally racers, and don’t go against the clock as many of the other countries’ swimmers do. My life has been based outdoors so it really feels like home being here. If it rains, even better for us, and mentally those from “indoor” countries might find it tougher.
‘We don’t have great facilities in South Africa so whenever we come to these major competitions, we tend to raise our game. Things are starting to get serious. I’ve got the 200m (breaststroke) on Friday and these Games will bring the best out of me. These are the best competitors around and while we might not have seen them all, I’m confident. Given there’s the heats and a semi before the final, it gives me a chance to move through the rounds and then save the big swim for the final.’
Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images