Cameron van der Burgh’s swimming career resembles the structure of mythological narratives as described by American author Joseph Campbell: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered, and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man,” he writes in the introduction of The Hero With a Thousand Faces.
Van der Burgh’s magical journey starts with his first swimming strokes as a remedy for a mild form of ADD.
He would ultimately become one of South Africa’s greatest sporting icons, collecting Olympic and multiple world championship medals throughout a career spanning more than a decade.
Winning a medal at every major swimming event since he first stepped onto the podium at the 2007 World Long-Course Championships in Melbourne, Australia paints a picture of a career with many highlights.
Van der Burgh brought his career to an emphatic end, claiming the 50-100m breaststroke double gold at the recent World Short-Course Championships in Hangzhou.
“As a young kid I had a lot of dreams. It has been amazing to fulfil those dreams but today is the day I announce my retirement,” Van der Burgh said after winning the 100m breaststroke title at the World Short-course Championships.
“Thank you so much for every person that has been a part of my life and my swimming career. Swimming has given me so much and has 'springboarded' me to the next part of my future.”
According to Campbell, the hero’s journey can be described in three phases which consist of the departure, the initiation where he or she is exposed to character tests, and the return. Van der Burgh was tested throughout his career, making his Olympic debut at the Beijing Games where he became the first African swimmer to break the one-minute barrier in the men’s 100m breaststroke.
It was still not enough for Van der Burgh to progress beyond the semi-finals; he finished fifth and narrowly missed a place in the final.
Battled hardened and armed with the World Short-Course records behind his name, Van der Burgh would face his biggest test at the London 2012 Olympic Games. He passed with flying colours, annihilating a world-class field to smash the 100m breaststroke world record and earn a spot on the top step of the podium.
The Pretoria-born swimmer had had to deal with the loss of close friend, Norwegian world champion Alexander Dale Oen, who passed away months before the Olympics.
Van der Burgh’s victory drew some controversy when he was accused of cheating for using the illegal dolphin kick to claim the title. His magical moment was also slightly overshadowed when Chad le Clos beat American legend Michael Phelps to claim the 200m butterfly title the following day.
SA swimming icon Ryk Neethling said Van der Burgh remained the consummate professional and gentleman despite the events that could have spoilt his crowning moment. “I have incredible respect for the way he dealt with the challenges of London and the controversy about the dolphin kick and then Chad’s victory happened,” said Neethling, who was Van der Burgh’s agent and manager for nine years. “He waited so long, and I don’t want to say Chad stole his shine, but Cameron stuck with who he was, and he carved out a niche for himself and never tried to be something other than himself.”
After achieving nearly everything he could in the sport, Van der Burgh lost a bit of his passion and drive following the Games. But the arrival of Englishman Adam Peaty, who dispossessed him of his Commonwealth Games 100m breaststroke title and World Long-Course records, reignited the fire in the South African.
“That 2013 feeling is what many athletes experience. Then Peaty entered the stage which changed Cameron because he was suddenly the underdog,” Neethling said. “I think it helped him to find a different angle, but he was very strategic. Whenever he felt he stagnated he would make changes. That balance helped him with his swimming; whenever in a happy environment he swam well.”
A reinvigorated Van der Burgh stepped onto the podium for the second consecutive Olympic Games in Rio 2016, finishing second behind Peaty. Two years later he would exact revenge on Peaty to claim the 50m breaststroke gold medal at the Gold Coast Commonwealth Games.
As the hero of our story, Van der Burgh timed his retirement to perfection, ending his journey the way he started it by stepping onto the podium for a double dose of golden delight.@ockertde