Cameron Swanepoel on his mountain bike
For student-athlete Cameron Swanepoel, mountain biking was a love and passion which he discovered only recently. Yet his sporting nature, combined with the freedom and bliss this new-found activity provided, propelled him to a national podium finish in just a few short years since taking up the sport.
The 25-year-old grew up in South Africa’s capital city Pretoria where he excelled as a long-distance runner. He received an athletics scholarship in high school before easing off after enrolling in the Tshwane University of Technology, where he currently studies architecture.
In 2018, he exchanged his trainers for a set of wheels after being introduced to a new sport, which he immediately fell for.
“I started cycling occasionally with my girlfriend and a local cycling group on weekends,” he says in an interview for FISU.net. “I fell in love with mountain biking since day one and did a marathon on just my third day on the bike!
“I then started cycling more and more and upgraded my bike as I progressed and started racing. I’ve only been cycling and participating in races for three years now.”
With mountain biking not considered one of the major sports in South Africa, neither at the university nor national levels, Swanepoel did not receive much support as he continued his progression on the bike.
“Unfortunately cycling is not a very big sport here,” he says. “We do not have a team or coach. I train most days on my own or on group rides with locals riding in my area.
“However, I was very fortunate to have received two amazing opportunities to represent my university: in the Varsity Cup competition at the Wines 2 Whales event, a day stage race in 2019, and at the University Sports South Africa (USSA) Championships in Durban this year.”
The latter event took place at the end of November. The build-up to it Swanepoel found incredibly difficult, as did many other athletes, with the COVID-19 pandemic causing major disruptions to the sporting calendar, as well as the ability to train.
“I had not been adequately preparing for that race,” he reveals. “I tried to stay in routine by getting up early to train before starting to study, but it was difficult to get up and study from home alone, and going out on my bike alone, during the pandemic.
“According to national law, we were only allowed to stay within a 5km radius from our homes, but at least I could still do my usual three-hour rides outside. With the pandemic though, I laid back on my training a bit and focused on my studies, as most races are being cancelled or postponed.”
Swanepoel used the experience from his very first university-level race in 2019 to better prepare for November’s national championships, where he achieved a personal-best podium finish taking home the silver in the mountain bike event.
“Following my Varsity Cup experience at the end of 2019, I wanted to be better prepared for my next competition,” he reveals. “So, I borrowed an indoor trainer to train every day at home.
“Luckily I had been back on the bike for a while when I heard the USSA race was confirmed!”
Over and above excelling in sport, Swanepoel says the balance between physical activity and academics has always been of utmost importance to him, with mountain biking offering a refreshing escape from the books.
“It has always been important to me to stay healthy and train and study to keep a healthy, balanced life,” he says. “Training is also a great way to get rid of frustrations and you always feel better afterwards, unless you have trained too hard, but even then you also feel good. When out riding in nature on the weekends, you just feel like you are escaping the city life and reality for a while.”
The hard-working student-athlete also acknowledges the importance that a degree brings in what can be an uncertain career as a sportsperson.
“I believe it is very important to have a degree behind you, as it is very difficult to make a career as an athlete, because there are so many talented people out there,” he says. “It is also so easy to get injured or ill which could cost your athletic career and then you don’t have anything else to fall back on.”
Now in his final year as a student, Swanepoel hopes to continue as a sportsman in future, and has raised the bar in terms of what he hopes to achieve next.
“After I graduate, I would definitely continue pursuing my career as an athlete,” he says. “I am still running and recently started swimming as I believe I will do well in triathlons, as I already mastered the cycling and running parts of it, and I have always wanted to try it. So that is my next goal: to start doing triathlon, and maybe even ironman!”