There was little to be happy about the South African Olympic effort in London last year. Except in the swimming pool where Chad le Clos and Cameron van der Burgh brought home Gold. Cameron recently joined the likes of Lionel Messi, Jensen Button, Bollywood stars and other famous athletes as brand ambassadors for a global shampoo range, and his people told ours we may sit down for a quick interview.
Did you sleep well the night before your Olympic Gold Medal and World Record? How did you prepare yourself for this race mentally the night before?
I was so excited; I knew I had to take a sleeping tablet to get proper sleep. I normally do that before a big race day. Having broken the Olympic record in the semi-final, I was so excited. It had been many years in the making and I was finally getting the chance to go for the medal. I felt a little bit drowsy, but still could not sleep. I woke up at about midnight, had to take another one, and the same again at about five o’ clock that morning and I slept from five till eight because its really important to get your eight hours of sleep.
Did you believe you could win or was there some doubt or fear?
Yes, yes of course. You have to believe it before you can achieve anything. I did believe it, that quiet confidence that you can win the Olympic Gold medal.
What goes through your mind when you are in the water, once you are swimming? Hopefully the DJ Euphonik tune you listened to earlier did not get stuck in your head.
It’s a bit like when you are brushing your teeth – it’s automatic, pre-loaded. There may be key points your coach tells you before the race to focus on. But when you are swimming, you don’t think of anything.
Would it be fair to say breaststroke is your favorite stroke and how did this come to be?
It’s definitely my favorite stroke and it’s the stroke that chose me. You start out like all the other kids swimming all the strokes up to the age of 16 or 17. Typically a coach has you swimming all strokes to that point. But my breaststroke just began to excel on an international level around that age and I decided to focus on it.
What other sports did you do as a kid and when did you start concentrating only on swimming?
Well, to be honest, I was hyperactive as a kid and I took Ritalin. My mum did not like who I became with the medication, so she took me off it and I just started doing every sport – rugby, cricket, soccer, athletics, swimming. At the age of 10, I beat everyone else at the house competition at Crawford in Pretoria by far and without any formal training, so we just decided that it was something for which I had talent and should take up seriously. I still continued the other sports, but when swimming went from twice, to three times and then to more per week, the other sports started taking a back seat.
Were your parents pushing you as a child and was there ever a time when you felt you did not want to go to any more swimming lessons?
They were never pushy. They motivated me in very different ways. Between age 14 and 16 I wasn’t swimming well. From being a national champion at 11, suddenly I was not winning. When I wanted to skip a lesson, my mother told me she wouldn’t take me for the rest of the week. That type of reverse psychology seemed to have worked. They never forced me nor incentivised me – it came from a personal will.
Who were your sporting heroes as a kid growing up in South Africa?
Growing up, I remember seeing Penny Heyns swimming and being quite inspired by her. We are quite an English family so we did not watch rugby much. I am just a fan of many sports and I have a huge appreciation for what people achieve now that I better understand what it takes.
What was your big break?
That was in 2007, when I qualified for the World Championship. I was 18 at the time, ranked 60th, and I came home with a medal. It was the first time I was able to race at international level, and I am the racer. I love to race. I do not care whether it is a world champ next to me. I just want to win the race at all costs.
Why have you not ventured abroad to train as so many young SA swimmers who get scholarships do?
I matriculated in 2006 and thought I would probably go to the US. That would have been August. But then I won the medal, got some sponsorships and started earning an income and the chance to race in Europe. Those are a lot of chances kids of my age have never gotten. If I had to go to the US, I would first have to race for my college, but here I felt I had the chance to race for my country, and I found that a lot more attractive.
How much doping is there in swimming? The Chinese Ye Shiwen was rumoured to have doped. Have you come across any of this – the blood-boosting, growth hormones?
I have never been offered; I have never seen any of it. But I think you would be ignorant to think that there is any sport without drugs. You have to make that choice and you cannot say that everyone else is doing it.
Yet, that was the excuse you used when you admitted to using the dolphin kick at he Olympics, namely that everyone else was doing it and that you too needed to do it to keep the playing field even. Why did you not just lie?
You know, growing up, you watch football and you see people dive. That’s part of the game. Part of why I think I took so much flack is that I was the first guy to stand up and say, “Let’s do something about it. Everyone is doing this.” If someone in eighth place said that, no one would take it seriously.
How strong is the temptation to seek out the absolute edge of what is available and still legal and who advises you and other swimmers on the latest developments in sports medical science? Who do you trust?
We get advised by the South African antidoping agency. I never take anything if I am sick without first checking with them.
How scary are female swimmers? Should the average guy try dating women with such huge shoulders?
You know, there are a lot of really sexy swimmers, sexy women. As a sportsman, you are kind of attracted to women who are muscular. They are still feminine; they do not look like a man. But they are toned. As they say: “Strong is the new skinny.”
The 100-metre breaststroke World Record and Olympic Gold Medal. If you had to choose the one or the other, what would you prefer?
The Olympic Gold. I have several World Records, but they can be broken, while I will always be an Olympic Gold Medalist.
You are one of the people who have been advocating underwater cameras. Why has FINA been so slow to move with technology and not get underwater cameras prior to the Olympics?
You have to understand how they like and need the sensationalism. This is a bit like a Sep Blatter at FIFA who understands how controversy keeps a sport popular. My article after my dolphin kick admission was more read than anything else about swimming at all of the Olympics, I am told.
You were reported to have been upset by not being nominated for a National Order of Merit called the Order of Ikhamanga? Is that true? Some commentators felt you were hard done by, while others claimed that the dolphin kick admission correctly disqualified you?
I did not make a big thing of it, and I did not take any interviews. Ryk [Neethling] asked me about it and I said, “Yeah, I am a bit upset about it because this is not like an opinion poll. You go to the Olympics to swim for your country and then it looks more like a popularity contest.” I would even put a guy like Jacques Kallis way ahead of me to get some recognition. He is like an absolute legend yet he still has not won it. It makes you a little sad when you feel like you do this for your country and they do not recognize it in return. This is not like in rugby where you may choose players on opinion. If you win a Gold medal at the Olympics and you break the World Record, it is clear what the performance entailed.
How much support have you had through your career from SA Swimming and what do you think of their and the government’s general support of young sports stars?
In the early years, the bulk of it came from my parents, but for the last two years I have been looked after by SASCOC. They have really helped me a lot and I cannot complain one ounce about that. They subsidize my living expenses, my training expenses, transport and all that kind of stuff is taken care of.
How much swimming have you done today? Give us some idea of what it takes to train at your level of competition?
Currently I am doing about 30 hours per week – that is up to four hours in the pool per day – and then I put another few hours in at the gym with boxing or yoga or the likes. I take Sundays off and I typically have my slower days when I do my traveling or have other engagements. Once a month I take a recovery week, but in between, I train extremely hard every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.
And sleep and sex? Are there specific requirements that you have to meet in order to maintain optimum performance? Is it true that sex before a match or race enhances the performance or do you subscribe to the save-your-energy school of thought?
In my game, it is always about whether you can push your body harder, and always finding the right balance between sleep, supplements, food and training. You can work out for yourself what the odds are that sex
would feature before a major competition. But now afterwards…
In South Africa, being a top male swimmer often means being a cover model and winning awards for being dressed well. You are in the company of the Ryks and Roelands and you guys sport these six packs and hard muscles with wet bodies. Surely you must have groupies throwing themselves at you? And, there must be enough pretty young women in Pretoria East who just like the idea of a guy who earns a couple of million each year in sponsorships? How do you handle this?
Yes, you will always have that, but I try to remain true to myself and to who I am. Can they say the same? Are they really interested in me or is this about Cameron the athlete and a way of social climbing? To me, anyway, to be sexy is to be independent and to have your own identity, so I do not think I am going to meet that woman among groupies.
Published in Playboy South Africa July 2013