LONDON – South African Cameron Van der Burgh, struggling to contain his emotions, shook his finger in disbelief at the screen above the pool as it flashed his 100 metres breaststroke world record and his country’s first gold of the 2012 Olympic Games.
The 24-year-old Van der Burgh became the first South African man to win Olympic gold in an individual swimming event, after he powered through a race that left champion Kosuke Kitajima and previous record holder Brenton Rickard trailing in his wake.
He set a world record of 58.46 seconds on Sunday, beating the 58.58 set by Brenton Rickard in 2009. It also eclipsed the Olympic record of 58.83 he set in his semi-final on Saturday.
“Tonight, as I came in, I said to myself, ‘a man can change his stars, you can write your own destiny tonight’. I had my chance and I took it,” he said, after a victory that saw him lie back in the pool in sheer exhilaration at the finish.
Van der Burgh later said he was looking up at the sky – remembering Norwegian rival and world champion Alexander Dale Oen, who died earlier this year of a heart attack.
“I know that he was probably laughing down at me, thinking ‘how can you go that time?'”
Van der Burgh’s victory ends a medal drought for South African swimming, after the team failed to win a single medal at the Beijing Games in 2008, a disappointment after Athens when an “awesome foursome” won gold in the 4×100 freestyle relay, followed by an individual silver and bronze from Roland Schoeman.
In rugby, cricket and soccer-mad South Africa, Van der Burgh is rare among swimmers as something of a celebrity.
Unlike a lot of top international swimmers he has resisted the temptation to train in the United States and until recently trained in a 25 metre pool in his local gym.
But he tightened up his training – moving to an Olympic-size pool and improving his nutrition – in the run up to 2012, shaving seconds off his time.
Van der Burgh trains under the tutelage of German coach Dirk Lange and Ryk Neethling, a veteran swimmer and the first South African to compete in four successive Olympic Games.
“It is good for the sport (in South Africa) but we have some big things that we have to change back home – we don’t have any pools – so there is work to be done,” Neethling told Reuters.
“Hopefully we can capitalise on this. We didn’t capitalise on Athens when we won, so hopefully we can do it this time.”
A driven child who once trained in freezing waters in the Kruger National Park, Van der Burgh is supported at the poolside by his mother, Beverley, who says she can hardly swim herself. She was emotional in the stands as he stood on the podium.
“I really don’t care about the world record. Once you become an Olympic champion you join the club, and they can’t take it away from you. One day I can tell my kids, when they are watching the Olympic Games, that I won that,” Van der Burgh said.
“One gold is better than Beijing already. If we can continue with this momentum, that would be good.”
Other South African aquatic medal hopes include Schoeman and the promising Chad Le Clos though the South Africans missed an opportunity in the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay on Sunday, where France took gold. The Africans finished fifth.
Van der Burgh has another opportunity at gold with the 4×100 metre medley relay later in the week.