Cameron van der Burgh (23) is a South African swimmer and is considered one of the strongest breaststrokers in the world over short distance (50 and 100m breaststroke).
Van der Burgh’s first major international medal came at the 2007 World Championships in Melbourne, where he won bronze in the 50m breaststroke. In 2008, he captured the attention of the world’s swimming fans by winning the award for Best Male Swimmer Overall at the FINA-Arena World Cup (short course), in the process breaking three world records (short course) in Moscow and Stockholm.
On 9th November, 2008, in Moscow, the young South African champion clocked an outstanding 56.88 in 100m breaststroke, improving on Ed Moses’s 2002 record of 57.47 by almost one second. A day before at the same event, Cameron swam the 50m breaststroke in 26.08 in eclipsing Ukrainian Oleg Lisogor’s record of 26.17. Three days later in Stockholm, Van der Burgh became the first man in the world to break the 26-second wall in 50m breaststroke, swimming a time of 25.94.
But his rise to true international fame came with his 50m breaststroke title at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, where he won in a new world record of 26.67, having set a new world mark the day before in the semi-finals (26.74). At the same championships he also won a bronze medal in 100m breaststroke. He finished the year off in fine style by winning his second successive FINA-Arena World Cup top ranking. On consecutive days at the Berlin leg of the World Cup series, Van Der Burgh broke his own world SC records for both 50m and 100m with times of 25.25 and 55.61 respectively.
In 2010 the South African champion confirmed his international supremacy as one of the world’s strongest breaststrokers. At the October Commonwealth Games, he won gold in both the 50m and 100m breaststroke, and at the World Short Course Championships in Dubai in December, he won the world title for the 100m breaststroke, while picking up a silver medal at the 50m distance.
By his high standards, Cameron’s 2011 World Championships in Shanghai failed to live up to his 2009 performances, but he nonetheless won two bronze medals at 50m and 100m, swimming the fastest-ever 50m textile time in the semi-finals (26.90). But he was building towards one goal – an Olympic medal.
Van Der Burgh more than realized his dream at London in 2012, as he won the 100m breaststroke in a world record time (58.46). After his victory, Van Den Burgh remembered fellow Elite Team member Alexander Dale Oen, his Norwegian breaststroke rival, training partner and close friend who died tragically last April of heart failure. “I just have to pay tribute to Alexander Oen. I know he has been with me this year. He helped me finish the race in such a strong manner. Alexander pushed me in training, and it made me realize I had to go faster to win gold. That is what we trained for and that is what we have achieved."
There are few swimmers who can claim to holding all four world records (long and short course) in their two chosen disciplines at the same time. Cameron Van Der Burgh is one of them. Not only that, his last world record was set in the process of winning an Olympic gold record. These are the statistics that dreams are made of.
In a sports-mad country where team sports such as rugby, cricket, and football reign supreme, and where golfers such as Ernie Els and Louis Oosthuizen are the most revered amongst the individual sports, South African breaststroker Cameron Van der Burgh has achieved a rare feat – he’s a swimming celebrity. No doubt that has something to do with his Olympic gold medal, four world records and two world titles, but he also has a smile, physique, and personality to go with it.
Aside from his achievements in the pool, he became the face of South Africa at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in India as he carried the country’s flag at the opening ceremony. By then, however, he had already become known as more than simply a world-class swimmer, having entered South African homes and hearts as Mr. February in The Cosmopolitan Sexiest SA Men Calendar 2010.
Born in Pretoria in 1988, Van Der Burgh still does most of his training in his home town. Coach Dirk Lange of Germany says that "he doesn't know the meaning of fear", although he might not have agreed with that on one particular occasion, when he genuinely feared for his life – while out with a friend in a rubber tube on the ocean, a killer whale leapt out of the water just 10m away. “It was close to us, and it was huge,” he remembered, “and I thought, 'this is it'.” Needless to say, they survived unscathed.
Other encounters with wildlife include finding himself sitting next to a baboon that invaded his family’s car looking for food – it found some licorice – when he and his family were holidaying in South Africa’s Kruger National Park. He was just 11. A few years later on a training camp as a 14-year-old, he recalls his toughest ever set, swimming 15km in a river just outside the same Kruger Park, in water he describes as “blisteringly cold” – while some of the younger swimmers were allowed to stop, he was “encouraged” to finish the set by the trainers who had already recognized his potential.
One of Cameron’s great swimming friends was Norwegian breaststroker Alexander Dale Oen, who died tragically just three months before the London Olympics. Aside from being a rival, he was also a training partner, and out of the pool they spent valued time together. The “friend” in the killer whale story above was Dale Oen, who as a student of photography gave Cameron tips on his passion beyond the pool – taking photographs of all the places on his travels.
At the 100m breaststroke final in London, Dale Oen’s parents sat with Van Der Burgh’s, and after winning the race he looked skyward, clearly thinking of Dale Oen. “In 2007 and 2008, Alex helped me so much and took me under his wing,” said Cameron. “When I touched the wall tonight, I looked up to the sky and thought he was probably looking down, laughing and saying: ‘How can you go that time?’ He really had such an influence on my career.”
This is a hint of how Cameron views his sport, his talent, and his good fortune – never to forget the human factor in anything (and not just swimming), and to share your experiences... even to remember a lost friend at the proudest moment of his own life.