Cameron van der Burgh interview: The last man to beat Adam Peaty reflects on their great rivalry

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Cameron van der Burgh won Olympic gold at London 2012 and silver in Rio four years later  (Laureus)
Cameron van der Burgh won Olympic gold at London 2012 and silver in Rio four years later (Laureus)

Cameron van der Burgh is in the middle of a session at his local Virgin Active gym in Fulham when something catches his eye. Across the room, another man is working out, wearing a t-shirt emblazoned with the name of the Barnes Masters Swimming Club and the South African spies an opportunity.

“I’m actually moving to Barnes soon,” he says, strolling over to introduce himself. “I’d love to get the details and come and see the club.”

“Yeah sure,” the man replies. “But you’ll have to come down and try out.”

Somehow, the former 100m breaststroke world-record holder and 2012 Olympic champion manages to suppress a chuckle.

“Okay, cool.”

“He gave me the email for the club secretary so I got in touch,” Van der Burgh tells Standard Sport, a few months later. “Then I saw the guy again after a couple of weeks and he said: ‘Oh my god, everyone’s giving me such a hard time that I asked you to trial!’ Luckily I passed!”.

As well as his Olympic crown, Van der Burgh has won six world titles and four Commonwealth Games gold medals, the last of them in the 50m breaststroke on the Gold Coast four years ago, when he was also the last man to inflict a major defeat upon a certain Adam Peaty.

Van der Burgh is the last man to inflict a major defeat on British superstar Adam Peaty (AFP via Getty Images)
Van der Burgh is the last man to inflict a major defeat on British superstar Adam Peaty (AFP via Getty Images)

It was at the 2014 Games in Glasgow that what would become a four-year rivalry with Peaty first blossomed, Van der Burgh winning the 50m by a mere 0.02seconds before the British teenager upset the Olympic champion to claim his first international title in the longer event.

“I’d obviously heard about him because he was swimming quick times,” Van der Burgh says. “He reminded me of myself in that he popped onto the scene within a year or two. The old guys are not so friendly to you at first and it was the same with me to Adam. It’s just human nature, we’re all competitive.”

Peaty dominated the next cycle, winning gold in the 100m at the Rio Olympics and was on a four-year unbeaten streak in the 50m heading to the 2018 Commonwealths, but it would be Van der Burgh’s turn to spring a surprise, claiming what would prove the final long-course title of his career. It remains the one prize missing from Peaty’s collection as he started his campaign in Birmingham on Saturday.

“Every time I went to the Commonwealths I had pretty much the same competitors as at the Olympics, whereas in some events there’s a massive drop off,” Van der Burgh says. “I used to make fun of [team-mate] Chad [Le Clos] because the Hungarians weren’t there, the Americans weren’t - he had an easy ride and I had all the tough guys.

“Someone asked me the other day, if you didn’t have Adam Peaty how many more gold medals could you have won? That’s true, but the enjoyment I had for the battles and the races we had together were epic.”

These days, the pair are friends who “chat now and then”, with children a similar age and Van der Burgh enjoying “giving him a hard time over his dancing competition”.

Van der Burgh’s “retirement” has taken him closer to the trading floor than the Strictly dancefloor, having started a new life in London as a hedge fund analyst.

“I get to sit with some of the smartest guys in the world,” he says. “I feel like I’m always the dumbest guy in the room! But it reminds me of when I was breaking through as a swimmer at 18 or 19, going on the tour and learning from all these legends.”

He also works as an ambassador for Laureus, supporting the organisation’s Sport for Good City programmes in his adopted hometown, aimed at driving social integration through sport in Barking, Haringey and Hounslow.

Alongside it all, a competitive return to the pool is on the cards.

“From next year I’d like to try and do some Masters competition stuff,” he adds. “I was looking at the Masters rankings and to be honest, some of the guys are not bad - I’ve got to do some work!”

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