I had the opportunity to sit down with Cameron Van Der Burgh over brunch after the 100 metre breaststroke world record holder returned from the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow with two medals in his pocket. Van Der Burgh secured a gold in the 50m event and a silver in the 100m swim and was reasonably happy with the way it went in Scotland. “I think going into the championship I wasn’t feeling that good. We had tried a few new things in training. Some worked but unfortunately some of them didn’t. It was weird because I was stuck in 150-mode. I have been training a little bit for the 200 to try and get in there. I think if I had to swim in the 200, it would be a good 200 but I’m not there yet, but if it was a 150 metre race I’d be bang-on. That being said I wasn’t feeling as good during racing but I’m happy to have come back with the medals that I did,” says the 26-year old.
Fans might have been disappointed that England’s Adam Peaty pipped him to the post in the 100m race. Peaty’s time of 58.94 seconds is slower than Van Der Burgh’s personal best world record of 58.46 and while disappointed on missing out on gold, the Pretoria resident is more upset that he could not swim quicker, “I was mainly disappointed knowing that I could be faster on the day but the race plan didn’t come together. It was one of the first times in my life that it happened and I guess sooner or later it happens to everybody, but rather now than in an Olympic year. You look at (Michael) Phelps in 2012; his race didn’t come together and he got beaten.”
The Olympic gold medallist sounded an ominous warning to his up-and-coming rivals, “I know I am capable of going a lot faster and with the training we did we were looking for faster times but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. It’s motivating though for the next two years that there’s some young guns coming up and chasing me. It’s good because I used to be the young guy coming up but now I’m the older guy defending. It’s not bad but I’m capable of going a lot faster. Last year I went the same time and I was horribly sick although I was in better shape last year. I think it is possible to break my world record and it is going to happen but coming in to the Commonwealths I just wasn’t feeling my normal self.”
Despite not feeling his normal self in Glasgow, the double world record holder says victory in the 50m event was one of the sweetest moments in his career, “It was quite weird for me to be in that environment and the toughest challenge was the mental game. To lose a race that you expect to win and then coming back, it’s not always an easy thing to do. I think I was just more emotional because of the mental victory. Going into the competition I think I struggled a lot with the 100, physically and emotionally but to overcome your demons, it plays a lot in your head and after the race you have 48 hours before the next one and that can be a lot of time to think. You only sleep about 12 hours of that so you’re thinking a lot about what went wrong. It’s mind games but at the end of the day I was just really proud to have overcome those mind games. It was one of my more personal victories rather than a physical victory.”
On feeling somewhat off his game at the Games, Van Der Burgh reveals he has an injury concern that he was not even aware of during competition. “I did not want to bring it up beforehand that I had an MRI scan done on my shoulder before racing and I was reading the report but did not really understand much so I handed it over to our doctors and the physios and they told me all was cool and they would tell me later. As it turns out I have a torn muscle and bone edema so I am going for a second opinion just to see what is happening. But if it’s all true then it looks like I’ll need surgery and will probably be out for six weeks. It would cut about 20-30% of the power out of my shoulder which is not great but if it needs to be done then so be it,” says the 26-year old, adding that given how motivated he is currently feeling the last thing he would want to do right now is take a break.
Preparations for the Olympic Games in Rio De Janeiro in 2016 have already started and the Pretoria man wants to defend his 100m crown in Brazilian waters. After taking a sip of his cappuccino, he says, “Rio 2016 is part of my plans now more than ever. I’d say Commonwealths reignited my passion for the sport. I think it was unfortunate this year we didn’t get to race enough with competitions being cancelled and me being sick but returning to competition makes you realise how much you miss it and how much you love it. I’ve got about two years to go but the Olympics feel like they were only six months ago and Rio is around the corner so now is the time to put in the hard yards.”
There is more to swimming and breaking records for Cameron Van Der Burgh. The Business Management student says life is all about balance, “I love swimming and it’s a big part of my life but it’s not who I am 100%. It’s a big passion of mine but we all have a lot of passions and we need that to have a good balance. If you just swim all your life and that’s all you know then you could turn out to be a very boring individual. There’s that saying, ‘Be as interesting as you are interested’ and that rings true here. It’s just not who I am. I like a broader spectrum. I’m enjoying my studies and I’m enjoying other things. I’ve been looking for a while as I’d like to get into business and there’s some good opportunities. I am also excited about giving back. I’ve been mentoring and spending time with kids and that’s quite rewarding when a kid says I am his biggest role model. That motivates me.”
After he finished his apple juice he thanked me and left for his next appointment. What he does not know is that as I was leaving a sweet, old lady called me over and commented on how exemplary Van Der Burgh is. She added he is a great role model and his humility is there for all to see. Given what he had told me about ten minutes earlier, he would have been thrilled to receive that feedback.
Photo credit: Wessel Oosthuizen/SASPA