London: You can hear it in his voice. The optimism; confidence; refreshing and simple itemising of humble aims and aspirations. The joy of opening a new chapter in his life and career. That’s the current state of affairs with South African swimming sensation Chad Le Clos.
There are two things that the Olympic 200m butterfly gold medallist will be better known for — beating Michael Phelps by a touch in the 200m butterfly and for being the son of Bert Le Clos.
If Chad was South Africa’s face of the London Games then his father will be known as the parent of the year and the man who put his heart on the line in exhibiting his unabashed love for his ‘beautiful boy’ as he puts it. It takes a man to laugh and cry in equal measure and Bert Le Clos is a man’s man; he is also the kind of parent an Olympic champion would be proud to have.
It isn’t easy to win an Olympic medal under any circumstances. They don’t give them out for free. Beating Michael Phelps, by something as infinitesimal as a touch, is a scenario most swimmers would baulk at. At the very least, such a situation happens in their dreams, or if they get access to cheat codes of the Michael Phelps video game.
Not Le Clos. The young South African dared to believe and had the resolve to close the race out when it mattered. Not just once. Le Clos chased down Phelps yet again in the 100m butterfly to win silver by a whisker.
Hounding the world’s greatest Olympian in his pet event is not a task for the faint-hearted. It isn’t just the psychological trauma of being in a lane next to Phelps, it is the agony of coping with one’s own expectations and falling short each and every time. Phelps is like a scythe that cuts down the weak in the pool, the merciless crucible of reality and racing fortune inflicted upon the star-struck, the foolish and the unlucky. Shortcomings become evident. Entourages fall silent. The race can be won, but more often it is survived.
Le Clos was determined to do whatever it took to win. As his father Bert told a radio station, appropriately named Ballz in South Africa, “He is not a human being, he is a lion,” and, as if to emphasise the phrase, he broke it down for the radio jockey on air, “Chad is unbelievable, he is a L-I-O-N.”
Le Clos testified that the key to his rewards was having a coach like Graham Hill, who pushed him till he was standing at the gates of hell, feeling the fires from it singe his soul and “seriously hard work. All I was doing was training and trying to get faster, if that makes sense,” said Le Clos. “The preparatory period was physically and mentally exhausting, there were times when I would fall asleep while sitting in the car and going back home.”
“Graham and me have a great relationship,” admitted Le Clos, paying tribute. “In and out of the pool he can be a pretty fiery guy. He’s hardcore. I’m actually scared of him, but in the end it paid off.”
In the two years since Le Clos made his debut at the Youth Olympics in Singapore, his timing has improved by four seconds — in the pressure cooker situation of intense competition it can be the difference between winning a gold and breaking a world record.
“I’ve been very focused in whatever I have done,” Le Clos elaborated. “I would also worry about everything that I did. I used to stress about things I couldn’t control. I also judge off other people. Graham kept pushing me all the time, he’s not easy on me, but it’s working.”
There is a genius lurking inside Chad Le Clos. It’s just waiting to make a grand entry. The simple boy from Durban — with the good looks of a Calvin Klein model — needs to grow into the lion that his father likened him to, not just in one event, but in the multi-dimensional swimming disciplines that won him medals in the Commonwealth Games in Delhi.
Which is why Le Clos’s first Olympic medal, “was the most overwhelming experience of my life. Nothing in the world can take London away from me.”
There were modest expectations in South Africa that he would succeed. “If Chad can get a medal, emphasising on the word ‘if’ was always the way they put it,” — Le Clos said, but they were not proportionate to his brazen, unrestrained ambition of beating Phelps.
“I believe I could win,” Le Clos admitted. “I was no longer scared to beat other guys after my first win,” he confessed. ‘’My father wouldn’t expect anything less from me.”
Winning against Phelps was, however, another matter. He was the ‘other guy’. The tension burned in Le Clos’s brain like a red hot branding iron.
“I have been watching Michael for years,” admitted Le Clos. “He played the role model for me, so no one looks up to him the way that I did. I didn’t want to shy away from the competition. I had trained my mind into withstanding any kind of pressure that Phelps emanated on the blocks before the start and in the water during the race.
“When you race Michael and Ryan (Lochte), doubt creeps into your mind at the starting blocks. Michael’s physical presence unnerves you, especially when he begins his pre-race routine of flapping his hands and loosening up, it can break you mentally.
“I’d rather lose to the best,” Le Clos added. “That’s the edge I had. When I saw him in the lane next to me, before the 200m butterfly, I realised that this is what I have always dreamt about.”
Chad Le Clos admits that he is still dreaming. When he pinches himself, little shards of reality creep into his brain. Thankfully, he’s not afraid of heights. He’s scaled the peak so fast that most would look down at where they have reached and shudder. The rarefied air that he breathes at the top seems to have given him a new perspective on life, a new energy.
A wonderful sporting tale is unravelling and the beauty is that it’s so uncomplicated.