By Gary Lemke
Cameron van der Burgh put Team South Africa on the medals table, like he did in London four years ago, and this time it didn’t matter that it was a silver that he won.
Van der Burgh pulled out all the stops in the final of the men’s 100m breaststroke at the Olympic stadium, producing the second fastest swim of his life – 58.69sec – which saw him chase home Adam Peaty, the British wonderkid who sped to his second world record in three swims, this time a 57.13.
‘I can’t say I’m disappointed,’ said Van der Burgh, the gold medallist from four years ago. ‘The Olympics is such a big stage and I’m getting goosebumps all over again knowing that I’m going to be walking out there for the medals ceremony again and they’re going to play Chariots of Fire again.
‘Coming into the final, I knew I didn’t have a 57-second in me; I have a few issues with my stroke and I’m not connecting properly with the kick and pull but I also knew that if Adam made some mistakes I’d be right there. He didn’t and well done to him, it was an incredible swim by him. But silver is a nice colour too and I’m super proud to add it to my collection. People don’t remember you by the world records that you’ve broken – as you can see here they are getting broken all the time – but they remember you on the medals you’ve won.’
Van der Burgh surfaced from the dive with Peaty before the Brit edged ahead and turned in 26.61, some 0.08sec quicker than when timing 57.55 in the heats. Van der Burgh was met by a wall of challengers inside the last 50, but was determined to hold on, even if he couldn’t get to Peaty.
The South African admitted that he came into the race with some pressure – ‘of course I feel it, you put pressure on yourself and also there’s a lot of expectation on me and Chad to get medals, so I’m glad I got the ball rolling. This is something to build on and things can only get better for Team South Africa.’
Earlier, Chad le Clos qualified for Monday night’s final of the men’s 200m freestyle, seventh overall, after being third quickest from the heats and prompting 2004 Athens gold medallist Ryk Neethling to tip him for the gold medal.
Le Clos had, like he did in the earlier heats, sprung off the blocks and had so much early speed he quickly got a body length on his rivals. Like he did earlier in the day, posting a personal best 1:45.89, he led through halfway (100m) and even through 150m. And,. like earlier in the day, he was hunted down by the formidable Chinese swimmer, Yang Sun.
In the semi-final though, it was not only Sun who got to the South African, but a pack of other specialist freestylers. Le Clos, is still ‘learning’ the art of fast freestyle racing at this level – and the mongrel in him never allows himself to take things easy. He wants to win every time he dives into the water.
For long periods in both the early heat and the evening semi-final, he looked fast and comfortable taking the fight to his opponents. And after finishing fifth in the semi-final, which left him seventh fastest overall, he admitted, having seen his first 50m split of 23.91, ‘That’s fast! I went out a bit too fast. I want to get out there, always go hard, against the best guys in the world.
‘I’m happy I’m in the final, and I still swam a PB this morning. We’ll see tomorrow how it goes.
‘I struggled a bit tonight, and when I turned at the 100, I didn’t know what to do, I’ve never been this far ahead, ever, my whole life.
‘I like to race. In the last 10m I was hurting a bit, and I knew that, like this morning as well, I’d gone slightly too fast. I need to pace myself slightly better.’
He still has a shout at a medal, even though the final is 30 minutes separated from the 200m butterfly semi-final, where he is defending Olympic champion. ‘I think 1:44.9 will get a bronze. There’s always lot of pressure in the semi-final, but in the final we can just go for it,’ he added.
And go for it he will. Don’t write off his chances of winning that bronze. As Van der Burgh will no doubt testify, ‘bronze is a nice colour too’.