Dubai: If ever South African swimming star Cameron van der Burgh had the opportunity to buy a Ferrari, he would not seize it, he insists.
Fast cars and the trappings of fame and fortune don’t matter to the philanthropic swimmer, who would rather splash his cash on the unprivileged in his native South Africa.
“There is so much poverty in South Africa. We have really tough parts and communities out there that I have never seen before until the other day when I went out there,” Van der Burgh told Gulf News on the sidelines of the 2012 Fina/Arena Swimming World Cup, which finished at the Hamdan Bin Mohammad Sports Complex earlier this week.
“For me, my aim is to try and see people getting proper jobs, a proper roof over their heads. We are too busy focusing on other things like having a new Ferrari and you forget about all these people who are struggling from day to day and just living on perhaps 20 euros per week, which is kind of crazy,” he said.
Last month, after being crowned Olympic champion in London in the 200m breaststroke, van der Burgh had the opportunity to reach out to people from the Township of Alexandra. It was an eye-opening, enlightening visit.
The star had received a cow from Jan Braai, the head of the National Braai Day (heritage) initiative. Not sure what to do with the bizarre gift, van der Burgh accepted close friend Ryk Neethling’s suggestion of donating the cow to the Nashua Children’s Charity Foundation (NCCF). In turn, Braai turned the cow into boerewors (sausages), which were then given to nearly 300 children living at Abangani Enkosini, a NCCF-supported children’s home founded by Portia Mongake. Many of the children there are either HIV positive or orphaned.
“I don’t think I will ever be involved in coaching, but I will definitely be involved in reaching out to people,” van der Burgh said.
A two-time World Cup winner in 2008 and 2009, van der Burgh helped himself to two gold medals at the Dubai competition to stay in contention for a third overall title when the eighth and final round is held in Singapore on November 10-11.
“When you become an Olympic champion, you have a voice and people will listen to you. It’s your duty to pay your dues and pay people back by making their voices heard. I have this opportunity and I will do it,” he said, emphatically.
Much of the swimmer’s admirable resolve also comes from the fact that the 24-year-old champion has endured misery of his own. Just before the London Olympic Games, his close friend Alexander Dale Oen passed away and then, three weeks ago, he lost another good friend.
Prior to this, on May 25 – the day he turned 24 –van der Burgh’s run of bad luck had started when burglars entered his home and stole pretty much all of his medals while he was out with his family for dinner. “The fortunate thing is that no one was hurt in the incident. These are just medals. They are objects and I still have the memories of winning the medals,” van der Burgh said.
Is ill fortune only served to provide him with the resolve to excel in London.
“When people get hurt and lives get taken then, that is the saddest part of our existence. It was quite upsetting to have such bad luck on my birthday, but then that’s what gave me more motivation to get an Olympic medal to replace the ones I had lost,” he said.
Learning from the school of adversity, van der Burgh can see himself evolving as a swimmer and as a person as a result. “This year has been a lot of different things starting with Alex passing away to the medals being stolen. So what I have learnt from it all is something that is much more important to me that life is pretty fragile and things can happen so quickly,” he said.
“And then another one of my friends passed away about three weeks ago and very, very quickly I realised how short life is. I think sometimes that my problems are big, when actually in comparison to what other people are going through, they are nothing,” he added.
“What I have taken from this all is that I don’t just want to be a memory. I want to leave behind a legacy.”
And with that in mind, he has set up the Cameron van der Burgh Foundation in South Africa with the sole aim of improving other peoples’ lives. “Sport unifies people and gets them thinking. During the Olympics I brought the nation together, so now why not bring the communities together as well?” he said.