Van der Burgh delivers Olympic gold to SAfrica

Cameron van der Burgh hit the wall, turned around and checked

the scoreboard. He had just become South Africa’s first man to win

an individual Olympic gold medal in swimming.

He splayed his body on the lane line, tucked his hands behind

his head that rested against the wall, and smiled.

Van der Burgh beat a stellar field in the 100-meter breaststroke

with a world-record time of 58.46 seconds on Sunday, but his mind

was mostly on his late friend and fellow swimmer Alexander Dale Oen

of Norway.

”I looked up at the sky and thought he’s probably laughing down

at us and thinking how can you go that time?” he said.

Dale Oen died in April at 26 from heart disease, leaving Norway

without its best hope for a gold medal in the Olympic pool. He

earned a silver in the 100 breast four years ago and won the world

title last year.

He and van der Burgh were close, with Dale Oen having taken the

South African under his wing since 2007 and teaching him the ropes

of international swimming.

”When someone is in your life they always leave a part of them

inside of you,” van der Burgh said. ”Tonight, I really felt

him.”

Christian Sprenger of Australia earned the silver in 58.93 and

Brendan Hansen of the U.S. took the bronze in 59.49 while swimming

in Lane 8.

Van der Burgh joined Penny Heyns as the only South Africans to

win individual swimming golds. Heyns swept the 100 and 200

breaststrokes at the 1996 Atlanta Games. The country also won gold

in the men’s 4×100 freestyle relay in 2004.

Kosuke Kitajima of Japan finished fifth in his bid to become the

first male swimmer to win an individual event for a third

consecutive Olympics. He was timed in 59.79 swimming in the lane

next to longtime rival Hansen.

”I didn’t realize he was next to me until we marched out,”

Hansen said. ”We have such a great respect for each other before

we walked out we shook hands.”

Hansen felt vindicated after finishing second in 2004 and fourth

in Beijing. He quit the sport after his second Olympic

disappointment and did triathlons before deciding to make a

comeback last year, following in the footsteps of such former

greats as Janet Evans and Ian Thorpe. Neither was successful.

”I’m the only one here,” Hansen said.

”It’s just really good to be back on the podium again after

missing it in Beijing and being the favorite in Athens and failing

to get it. It’s probably my favorite moment in the Olympics and the

hardest I’ve had to work for.”

Kitajima loomed large in van der Burgh’s mind, too.

”Early in the year he went 58.9. That was a real powerful

message to everybody after Alex went 58.7 last year. Maybe today

wasn’t his day, but you can’t take it away from the guy,” he said.

”He’s got four Olympic champions, so if he missed one today it’s

OK for him.”

Kitajima swept the 100 and 200 breaststrokes in Athens and

Beijing. He will try to defend his 200 title starting Tuesday.

”I was thinking a lot of things in the last three days and

started having doubts while swimming. This was very

disappointing,” Kitajima said. ”I didn’t have any technique I

could be confident in, something I could think ‘Yes, I can go with

this.’ When my legs are moving OK, then my arms get bad.”

He took some time off after Beijing and then moved to Southern

California to train in the same pool as American breaststroker

Rebecca Soni.

”I made a lot of effort on myself and I prioritized myself

instead of someone else,” he said. ”I have enjoyed the comeback

process until now but it may not be linked to the result. But I

still have a chance in the 200. It is going to be a high-level

race. I have to think about the 200 more seriously.”

Hansen could relate to Kitijima’s result after his

off-the-podium finish four years ago.

”It’s one of those things where he may not have the most fire

underneath him because he’s already done it twice,” he said.

”It’s probably one of the most talented fields I’ve swum against.

I don’t think it takes away from anything he’s done in the

sport.”