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Cameron van der Burgh flexed his pectoral muscles in an almost showman-like way before the biggest night of his life on Sunday night. Then he shrugged his head from side to side, stepped up on to his block in lane four, crouched, dove and in the fastest time ever for the 100 metres in breaststroke, he had completed his dream.
He never looked like losing. It only took 58,46 seconds, but he led from the start and by the end he was almost half a second ahead of Australia’s Christian Sprenger, the silver medallist, and over a second in front of Brendan Hansen of the United States. It looked as though the weight of the world, the pressure of being South Africa’s medal banker, had lifted from the shoulders of the 24-year-old Pretoria man, and as it did so, the mantle of greatness settled upon him in its place. He will now be an Olympic medallist and no one can take that away from him. He threw his swimming cap in the air, rested on the rope that divides the lanes and celebrated.
It was a medal for himself, a victory for South Africa and a nod of respect to a man he called a friend and a rival, Alexander Dale Oen, who died after a heart attack in May.
Dale Oen had been the one he had aimed to beat, he said, having trained to be at 58,50 seconds for the 100 metres. Dale Oen had posted a time of 58,70secs and that was the target they all aimed for.
Van der Burgh had broken the Olympic record on his way to his medal with a 58,83secs swim in his semi-final on Saturday night, a feat that echoed the path taken by Penny Heyns back in 1996 when she grabbed gold in the 100m breaststroke.
She set two world records along the way to the final. It was a grand statement by Heyns, and it was a grand statement by Van der Burgh as he snatched the Olympic record away from the man some thought would be his biggest rival, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima.
It was a proud night for South African swimming, which has been on a journey of introspection and discipline since they left Beijing with nothing to show for their efforts. Swimming has always been the spark for South Africa at previous Games and before Sunday night they had won eight of the 19 Olympic medals South Africa have collected since their return from isolation. Van der Burgh followed in the proud footsteps of Heyns, Marianne Kriel, Terence Parkin and the Awesome Foursome 4x100m freestyle relay team of Ryk Neethling, Darian Townsend, Roland Schoeman and Lyndon Ferns. Schoeman’s three medals in Athens, gold, silver and bronze, remains a high point for South Africa, but, sadly, Swimming South Africa failed to kick on from there as the federation faltered and spluttered.
In the years since Beijing, Swimming South Africa devised a long-term plan, a three-year programme that took funding from Sascoc and the Lotto, and used it to give all swimmers, both those based in South Africa and overseas more support. It began to pay off in Delhi at the Commonwealth Games in 2010 when Van der Burgh doubled up on gold, winning both the 50m breaststroke, which is not an Olympic event, and the 100m. In total, South Africa won 15 medals in India in 2010, seven gold, three silver and five bronze. That event also marked the emergence of Chad le Clos, then still a teenager, as he won two golds in the 200m butterfly and the 400m individual medley.
The South Africans, however, need to find a little more strength in depth after most of them failed to reach the finals of their competitions. Suzann van Biljon was seventh in her 100m breaststroke semi-final last night. Van Biljon said it was not her main event and was happy with her swim as she had managed to clock up a personal best in the morning heats. Charl Crous was eighth in his heat in the 100m backstroke in 55,37secs, and failed to progress, while Wendy Trott was also eighth in the 400m freestyle and will take no further part in that event.
On Saturday night, Le Clos stood two metres away from Michael Phelps having finished fifth behind him in the 400m IM final won by Ryan Lochte, the man whom the Sunday Times of London lauded on their front page on Sunday: “A superstar is born.” Phelps’ fourth place was greeted as the sign that the time of the 14-time Olympic gold medalist had come to an end and they were crowning the new king. No one, though, bothered to ask about the kid from South Africa who had finished fifth, the one that had beaten Lochte in the morning qualification and caused him to admit that the swim had “hurt”.
South African swimming has been hurting since Beijing. Van der Burgh may have helped accelerate the healing of the sport. – The Star