Thu Dec 08 16:21:31 CAT 2016

The BIG READ: How SA ruled the pool

Ross Tucker | 2012-07-31 00:22:42.0
Cameron van der Burgh won gold for South Africa in the men's 100m breaststroke at the London Games Picture: CLIVE ROSE/GALLO IMAGES

Cameron van der Burgh produced a magnificent performance in London on Sunday night to become the first man to win individual swimming gold for South Africa.

The swimmer showed poise before the race, class after it and, in between, delivered the most sensational 58.48sec of breaststroke swimming ever seen.

Before the Games, Van der Burgh was always going to be South Africa's best chance for a medal.

The medals he won at two consecutive world championships spoke of his talent. The only question mark against him was whether he could turn his proven speed and power over the 50m distance, an event in which he was the world record-holder, into a perfect 100m race. He did exactly that.

Reports after the race told of how he had modified his training and diet to find the half-a-second that he would need to win gold - and it paid off handsomely.

The fact that the 50m event is not in the Olympic programme would have allowed Van der Burgh to adjust his training focus subtly, with less emphasis on pure speed and explosive power, and more emphasis on the ability to maintain high speeds after the turn, over the final 30m. He switched from an indoor 25m pool to an Olympic-sized pool to help him achieve this, and it's that change that was most evident in London.

In the final, he swam the perfect race for a man with the best 50m credentials. He got the fastest start, building up a lead and putting himself 0.6sec under the world record pace at the halfway mark. Then he worked brilliantly off the wall, extending his advantage further, and the race was effectively won at 75m. As the best 50m short-course swimmer - where the importance of the start and push off the wall is greater - Van der Burgh capitalised on his strengths perfectly.

He lost some of his advantage over the final 25m, as the more endurance-based swimmers began to come back, but the work had been done and his margin in the end was impressive. The script could not have been implemented more perfectly, and he took the necessary steps to move his 100m history from silver and bronze to a dominant, and well-deserved, gold.

In other action in the pool, Michael Phelps made headlines on day one for unexpected reasons, because he didn't even get a medal in the 400m individual medley.

The much-hyped battle with Ryan Lochte didn't materialise as the Olympics' most decorated swimmer had an off night.

He did bounce back on Sunday with the second-fastest leg in the relay event, suggesting that his poor first day was an aberration, and he is still the man to beat.

Of interest have been the times: the Beijing Games produced 66 Olympic and 25 world records in 32 events. At the time of writing, we've seen six Olympic and three world records. Impressive, but nothing like the "clearance sale" on records we saw four years ago.

It's interesting how often swimmers are under world-record pace after the first 50m, and how they then drop back in the latter part of races. That's partly because the starting blocks have been modified. You'll see a "step" at the back of the block, which allows the swimmer a more powerful push as they dive into the water. These blocks have improved start speeds, allowing swimmers to get to 50m faster, often under world-record pace. But then, the absence of suits means they fall off the pace during later stages.

South Africa's 4x100m medley is our next medal possibility, and we'll once again rely heavily on Van der Burgh and Chad le Clos in the butterfly. The heats are on Friday and the final is on Saturday.

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