Glasgow – On the hottest day in Glasgow this week, where temperatures soared to 26ºC, Cameron van der Burgh sat down in the international zone at the athletes’ village and contemplated the advantage and burden of being a hot favourite and experienced athlete at his second Commonwealth Games.
There was a calmness about Van der Burgh, the Olympic 100m breaststroke champion and world record holder, who seldom seems flustered. He’d flown in from Austria on Monday, after final preparations for these games with his coach, Dirk Lange, the former head coach of the South African team. The calm would end on Friday, when he begins to compete. He was putting on his game face slowly.
“I’m getting there,” said Van der Burgh, who will defend the 100m and 50m titles he won in Delhi.
“There’s always a high expectation of what you should feel like. You always want to feel better, but you never know until you race. It gets harder and not easier ahead of big events, because you have to pump yourself up more and get excited.
“It’s not that you don’t know what to expect, but that when you are younger, things are new to you. As you get older, you almost take it for granted and you are more relaxed. Now I’m used to it.”
Experience can sometimes be accompanied by the dullness of complacency. The Olympic champion and world record-holder is fully aware that becoming a champion and remaining one is about the fight against complacency and knowing how and when to ratchet up the emotional element to go with the physical talent.
“I was speaking to Roland (Schoeman) about it, and he was saying he’s really excited about this for the first time in a long time. He was swimming really well, then he went through a dip, and now he feels he’s on the way up again,” said Van der Burgh.
“A big thing he said to me was that when you are winning, you take it for granted. When you are doing well, you expect it is going to come. That’s when it is very dangerous. You have to make sure you get excited and pumped up.”
Van der Burgh was pumped up in Delhi four years ago, when he won the 100m breaststroke and held up his hands with the “Ke Nako” motto that had marked the 2010 World Cup in South Africa that year written on his palms. It was a frontpage hit for Van der Burgh, although he had to explain to some of the international media that it meant “our time is now”.
“A lot of people thought it was my girlfriend’s name,” laughed Van der Burgh, who wasn’t sure whether he would do something similar in Glasgow. “I don’t know. Not yet.
“They are quite strict now, you can’t wear certain things.”
He will be hoping to wear two gold medals and perhaps one silver from the 4x100m medley relay, where South Africa feel they have a real chance of a podium. His main competition in the 100m will come from Australia’s Christian Sprenger, who has swum 58.87 this year, and England’s 19-year old Adam Peaty, who broke the British record in Barcelona with a 59.25, the second-fastest in the world this year.
Van der Burgh of South African has a 59.50 and Ross Murdoch of Scotland 59.56.
Van der Burgh feels his time in Austria has been good for him. He overcame a sickness he had picked up in South Africa there, and has tapered himself about as perfectly as he can. He has worked on his stroke this year, making a few changes, slightly longer but more efficient. His body is ready. The mind will follow.
“It’s the nerves,” said Van der Burgh. “You have to get into it. The regimes of shaving, etc, are triggers to get you started. I’ve done a lot more work this year, so I’m a lot more nervous. I am looking forward to racing.”