“His parents had steered their youngest into sport to channel the excess energy that had seen him diagnosed with a mild form of ADD, rather that keep him dosed up on Ritalin, which changed his personality and dampened his spirit.” — Sport 24.
JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — Cameron van der Burgh’s Olympic gold medal has more heart and meaning than just the happiness of winning. These are the words of Bev van der Burgh, the gold medallist’s proud mother.
“He swam that race for Alex,” says Bev, referring to the late Norwegian swimmer Alex Dale Oen, Cameron van den Burgh’s friend and rival in the pool, who died of a heart attack at the age of 26 earlier this year.
“Cameron had brought a picture of Alex with him and he actually wanted to take it onto the podium with him. It wasn’t allowed in the end, but he’d really wanted to bring Alex along with him.” Bev tells of a video made by Alex, which his girlfriend showed Cameron.
Filmed during a visit to London shortly before his death in April, the video shows a playful Alex next to the Olympic pool. ‘Here I am at the Olympic final, in lane 4, and next to me in lane 5 is Cameron van der Burgh and in lane 6, Kosuke Kitajima.’
In a prophetic turn of events Cameron van den Burgh won his gold medal in lane 4 and as he said at the press conference afterwards, he really felt as if Alex was with him, helping him win.
But it was years of steely determination, single-minded focus and unwavering dedication that brought the 24-year-old Pretoria swimmer to London in the first place.
“Looking back now, there were always signs that Cameron had the makings of an Olympic champion,” says Bev.
Cameron van der Burgh diagnosed with Mild ADD
His parents had steered their youngest into sport to channel the excess energy that had seen him diagnosed with a mild form of ADD, rather that keep him dosed up on Ritalin, which changed his personality and dampened his spirit.
“He was about 10 when he arrived home with a note from his teacher saying that she felt Cam was very talented – he’d not had any coaching but in the interschool gala he had swum really well against kids who’d been receiving training.”
The family found a coach for their little star, and at 11 he made the SA school team and travelled to the Pacific School Games in Sydney, Australia.
No medals that year, but at the next Games, in 2005, he medalled in all his races.
Bev really saw her son’s mettle when misfortune struck just after his first year at the SA Nationals, when he was around 16.
Greater Challenge than ADD for Cameron van den Burgh
“At Kingspark Stadium in Durban there is a diving pool alongside the regular pool. Cameron had completed all his events and went along to the pool with a friend to watch the rest of the competition.
“Ankles are very important in breaststroke, and there were people who said that he may have to change his focus and look at specializing in another stroke.
It was a bad break, he needed an operation to implant pins, and he would be on crutches for six weeks.
“Ten days after the operation, he tells me, ‘Mom, can you take me to the gym?’ I laughed at him and asked what he would do there, since he was on crutches, but he replied, ‘Only my one leg is in a cast. I can still keep the rest of my body toned and strong.”
“So for six weeks I drove him to the gym every day, where he carried on training as best he could. Then there was another operation to remove the pins, and then he needed physical therapy for rehabilitation… but as soon as all that was finished, he got back into the water and it was as if he had never taken a break.
He had kept his body so conditioned, that the time out of the pool had no impact on his performance. He raced soon afterwards and his times never dropped from before.
The Mentally Strongest Wins the Big Races
“That is when I realised he is really serious about this… there is no excuses for Cam, nothing will keep him from getting where he wants to be.”
Bev credits her son’s ability to focus for his triumph. Yes, his times were great, she argues, but in a competition as big as this one, it comes down to who is mentally strongest.
“Cameron is really strong mentally. And that comes through preparation, and being used to not being fazed when the odds seem stacked against you.
“He has had a very unusual career in terms of his preparation, in that his coach was in Germany for most of the time. When Dirk Lange moved back to Germany after the Beijing Olympics, they continued with long-distance coaching, which required enormous discipline.
Dirk would email him a training programme and then they would talk on Skype, and Cam would go to the pool and follow Dirk’s programme on his own, overseen by a local SA coach on the pool deck.
“Then his local coach left the country unexpectedly, and Cam was left with no-one to oversee him on the pool deck! So many people rallied around to help; from fellow swimmers, to his mentor Ryk Neethling who’s been there himself, and could help Cam prepare mentally… the people around him all did their bit. Cam approached an old coach of his, Francois Boshoff, who had retired to a small town.
For a while I took Cameron to the airport every Tuesday so he could fly down for two days to get the benefit of Francois’s technical coaching, in between doing his strength training – so important for a sprinter – in Pretoria, with his strength coach Naat Laubscher.
“This toughened him up. I really admire my child for his discipline.
All the up and down was made worthwhile, Cameron told me, because Francois was able to pinpoint a tiny little stroke improvement that in the end may have shaved off a few milliseconds… and in the end, that is what makes the difference.
“And then, before they left for Europe earlier this year for the final preparations before the Olympics, Cameron flew Dirk out from Germany for a month of intensive training. He was really well prepared.
“What I’m proudest of is that Cameron is the first South African homegrown success story. He has won gold without having had the benefits of training in America like South Africa’s other swim heroes. We may not have the facilities like those available at a US university, but Cameron proved that it can be done. He is very much a family man who loves to be close to his nearest and dearest, and he made that decision because he knew he would not be happy in America, away from everyone he cared about and an environment where he couldn’t just be himself. He believes he would not be as successful if he wasn’t happy where he was.”
What’s Next for Cameron van der Burgh?
What next? If you’ve reached your dream and it’s Olympic gold in your chosen event, at the age of only 24, where do you go from there? What could possibly top that?
“Cam has already told me that as soon as he gets home the week after the Games finish, he’s going straight into training for short course, which happens in Pietermaritzburg in a few weeks. No holiday, no break even…it’s business as usual! Yes, he has kind of ticked all the boxes: he’s achieved the SA records and the world records. He’s conquered the Commonwealth Games, and Olympic gold was the last big goal. Now it’s four more years to the next one… I myself don’t know how you’d keep going! But it’s his job; it’s a case of what is the next race, and let’s prepare for that. While he was preparing for the Olympics, the focus was that, nothing beyond. So when he gets back he will sit with his coach Dirk Lange and they will assess where he is now and what the next goals will be.
“I received literally hundreds of text messages of congratulations after Cameron won, but the message that means the most to me is the one that he sent me himself on the night of his win. He thanked me for being there for him, said he couldn’t have done it on his own, and ended it with, ‘I love you Mom.’ It just made me cry… a mom will do everything for her children, and the greatest gift is to be appreciated and just to be told, I love you.”
“On the night of the win, Cam’s dad, his brother Andrew, his girlfriend Jana and I went to the new mall across the way to grab some dinner and celebrate. Cameron texted Jana that he would join us after he had dinner, to show her and his dad the medal. (Andrew and I had seen it earlier as Ryk had organized us two seats near the pool and the medal podium). We joined some other friends in a restaurant, and when Cam arrived all hell broke loose! The whole restaurant wanted a picture with him! It was a big celebration. But by the time we left he’d still not taken the medal out of its box to show us, being so overwhelmed by all the attention… So we all snuck into a dark alley, and huddled around Cam as he opened the box to show off his medal!”
“Cameron did say to me, ‘Mom I think my whole life is going to change,’ but I don’t think he realizes the extent to which this is so. He has received so many messages of support, everyone is so proud of him, his friends are warning him to get ready for when he gets home… But at the moment he is just really satisfied, and really excited. He’s of course still in training for the relay that lies ahead this weekend, so it’s not time to relax yet. Not that I know if he ever will relax… I don’t know what kind of nerves you need to handle this pressure; I couldn’t do it! Who knows, if all goes well, there may be another medal…”