He is arguably South Africa’s best chance of a medal at the London Olympics, but SA swimming star Cameron van der Burgh seemed to be happier chatting about Team SA than his own chances when we caught up with him ahead of the global showpiece starting this week.
Van der Burgh is Africa’s first home-trained world record holder in the pool and despite being only 24, he is the current holder of three world records and has two Commonwealth titles to his name.
One thing he does not have is an Olympic medal, something most pundits believe will change in London.
And while the easy-going breaststroke champion admits that being regarded as a medal contender brings with it some additional pressure, it is not something he feels burdened by.
“There is extra pressure, but there is pressure in everything in life,” he tells iafrica.com.
“For me, to be considered a medal contender is a great honour, and at least you know you’re doing something right. I think you need to try and use that positively and move forward with it. At the end of the day, it’s not like it’s rugby when the determined outcome could be decided by the ref or by a guy who makes a big tackle. It is not something left up to chance… you have your own lane, you swim your own race and there is nothing that another guy can do to effect that.
“In that sense, I know that I have prepared really well and whatever I can do, I can do. I will do my best in my lane and that is all anybody can ask."
London will not be Van der Burgh’s first Olympic Games and he admits that the experience he picked up in Beijing in 2008 will be invaluable this time around.
“In 2008, a lot of people told me, the Olympic Games is something different and when you get there you will know what it is all about and it is definitely like that. The first day that you get there, you’re just in awe of everything.
“When you arrive for your heats it’s different feeling to any world champs or commonwealth games and you know that this is it, this is what everybody is after.
“Having dealt with it in 2008, having gone through it all before, the experience will definitely aid me in my performance. In 2008, I had a really good heat swim, but I wasn’t experienced enough to conserve energy, or rest in between the heats and the semifinal and didn’t make the Final at the end of the day.
“These are all the kinds of things you learn along the way, how to conserve energy and pace yourself for the final, which make a big difference at the end of the day.”
Swimming is very much an individual sport, but Van der Burgh is quick to point out that harmony within the squad of swimmers heading to London is important to each member, as the support they draw from one another can provide a huge boost in the pool.
SA swimming has had some drama in the past, with locally based swimmers clashing with team-mates based abroad, but Van der Burgh is quick to point out that such issues are history.
“The team that we have now, everybody has grown up together – it’s a moderately young team – everybody gels and we are all about the same age and I think everybody has good understanding of what is needed. In the past there were some issues, but nobody enjoyed it and wasn’t great for team morale either and nobody wants to make the same mistake this time around,” he stresses.
“We all want to support each other and get behind one another.”
Team SA did not have much to celebrate in Beijing four years ago, with only one medal across all the sports, but judging by the preparation ahead of the London Games, 2012 will give supporters more reason to celebrate. Van der Burgh, meanwhile, is quick to heap praise on Sascoc for the work they have done during the build-up to the Games.
“This time around, the planning has been a lot better, the professionalism of Sascoc… you still can’t compare us to America and Australia, but compared to how it was for us in 2008 and it’s like apples and oranges,” he reveals.
“That really does make a big difference for all of us. We are able to train professionally and not just as amateurs and this time around that has been such a great help.
“Everything I have asked for I have been given. Everybody is talented and everybody has trained hard, but the sport is becoming more technical these days and the smallest things make the biggest differences. To make a final, from first to eighth place is half a second, and it’s those little things that can make those differences.”
Van der Burgh has been tipped as Team SA’s best hope in the pool in London, but he believes there are a number of swimmers, apart from himself, that are more than capable of climbing up onto the podium this year.
“There are so many guys that are performing well,” he says.
“We all get so excited ruing training because everybody is swimming so well – it’s going to be so close, because if we can get off to a good start on the first day... we can either get a whole bunch of fourths or a whole bunch of medals – it’s going to go either way.
“Our relays have a really good chance in the relays, Chad Le Clos – he is swimming in a lot of events and doing really well – there are a lot girls who are swimming really good times as well. But I think our best chance comes in the medley relay, because we have a really good, young team with a lot of team spirit.
“The relays, they are on the last day, and they always say the last day is a good chance to win a medal because a lot of the guys have swum a lot of races and are really tired, so we have a couple of guys who are just concentrating on the relays and we are really excited about doing well there.”