CHAD LE CLOS, THE GOLD STANDARD

South African swimming sensation Chad le Clos stole the show at the recent World Championships in Hungary, breaking hearts on his way to a hard-fought and emotional gold medal in the 200m final

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This came after both of his parents fought cancer last year and missing out on Olympic gold. The born winner showed the heart of a champion, breaking the field in the last 30m to romp home in the hotly-contested 200m butterfly final.

But it has not always been easy for the Durbannite, who did not have the luxury of indoor facilities, professional coaching and elite strength and condition for much of his career, including his shock win over Olympic legend Michael Phelps in 2012.

But a move to Cape Town before the championships and a new coach helped him to begin fine-tuning his skills, taking a classic South African rough diamond (in terms of technique, not attitude) and refining it into a potential world record smasher—which is the plan for the coming years.

Le Clos is every parent’s dream and sets a positive example for the younger generation, which is often starved of positive role models.

What has life been like after the World Championships—winning a gold medal must have been an immense feeling?

I said to my family the other day, I feel very happy—I just feel very completed by everything that’s happened, it couldn’t have gone much better over the last six weeks. I’m very happy to be home and I just feel back on top.

I was watching your documentary from 2016 before you moved to Cape Town—you really don’t have the sort of facilities that they have in America. What have been some of the challenges you faced while getting to the pinnacle of the sport?

You just said it! It’s just difficult with the facilities that we don’t have and knowledge of how are we going to do the exercise? I’ve learnt so much from my new coach, Andrea Di Nino, over the last seven months. It helped me understand a lot of the new things about swimming, the smaller things, the small details—the start, the time, the drilling, the technique, the diving, the turn, the smaller things that make the big difference in swimming.

How much faster are you able to swim with these new, professional methods?

I can get a lot quicker, I feel like I’m not even using my power. I know I’m 25 years old and people say that that’s the age you start getting your powers but I still feel as though there’s so much more to achieve and I’m just so excited. I’m very motivated, I’m working very hard and, obviously, I need a break now for a few days—not too long—but I just want to be the best I can be. Going into these World Championships, I thought, I’ve done everything I could to win and to, hopefully, get close to those world records and if I lose, it’s all good because they would have deserved it.

Your mental strength in the last 30m, is that the hallmark of your game, being able to break people?

Yes, I just focus on myself. Sometimes, races aren’t going to be pretty in the way that you win them or it’s not going to be won by a big margin, it’s going to be 0.1 of a second both ends. At the end of the day, you get your hand over the wall first and that’s what counts. Last year, when I lost the Olympics, I didn’t make any excuses, I had a lot of reasons why I didn’t win and why things didn’t go according to plan but I kept it to myself, I worked hard, I just made adjustments and here I am. I’m very humble and very proud to be back on top.

Your father is a big part of your preparations and must be immensely proud. What sort of upbringing did you have, what sort of family dynamic brought you to where you are?

Yes, I had a great upbringing. Everything that I do, the way that they brought our family up is to be respectful, respect your elders—just be the best you can be and never give up, that’s the important part. And never give up on your dreams, never give up on your goals.

Swimmers like Ryk Neethling and Roland Schoeman, were they your role models growing up?

Yes, and a big role model for me was Terence Parkin. He was at the Olympics in 2000, he was a fantastic swimmer and received a silver medal, and I really looked up to him, he’s a very humble guy. I didn’t know Ryk too well when I was younger but, obviously, he was a huge motivation for me, and Roland and the boys, and I knew Cameron van der Burgh but he was very young when he was on the team. Penny Heyns of course—she was the greatest breaststroke champion, so that’s amazing.

Being a role model to youngsters, putting yourself on a pedestal—is that sometimes challenging at times, being a young man yourself?

Yes, look, it comes with the territory. For me, I don’t see it as a job—it’s a responsibility that you get given and you have to just enjoy it and put yourself in other kid’s shoes. I remember when I was looking up to those people and I saw certain people behave in certain ways and I immediately didn’t like them, just because of their behaviour. If you look at humble guys, humble guys like Lazlo, the guy I beat in the final—all these guys are humble champions. That’s what we need, especially here in South Africa. We need guys like that and I pride myself on being like that. We have a lot of role models that are coming through now, South Africa had an amazing athletics week last month, so we have reason to celebrate in South Africa.

With all your success, do you see other youngsters wanting to get into the pool more and elevating the sport into the top five in South Africa, so to speak?

Yes, definitely. For me, with moving to Cape Town, I am going to be opening my academy very soon. That’s one of my biggest goals—to help youngsters from grassroots levels and get them motivated, get them involved in swimming.

You faced a very tough competition at the World Championships in Hungary—what was the experience like?

Yes, look, it was the most competitive race at the World Championships. For me, personally, going through the rounds, there was a lot of pressure because, even though I wasn’t the favourite by any means—I wasn’t even in the top three—I had the pressure on myself as a favourite because every time I go into a race I feel like I want to be the best.

Was the 100m a disappointment? And was it as a result of emotional exhaustion after the 200m?

No, no that was not at all. It was a terrible mistake from my side. I made a couple of errors and was probably just playing around a little too much. It got me thirteenth place so, yes, we weren’t very happy at all but, at the end of the day, I came to win the 200m, that’s what I said—I came back to win that. If you had asked me a week before, “Would you take a gold medal and a 13th place?” I can’t be unhappy with that.

You had a bit of an up and down in 2016 and came roaring back in 2017—how do you digest the defeats?

That’s exactly it—a lot of people doubted me, a lot of people doubted everything I did, they said moving to Cape Town is going to be a mistake, there are too many distractions and the coach coming in wasn’t going to work for me and we have proved a lot of people wrong. But at the end of the day, it wasn’t about that, it was about getting myself back on top, making myself feel the way I felt before 2012.

Speaking of 2012, beating Michael Phelps was the highlight of your career thus far. What was the key to finding the X-factor that enabled you to beat him?

Yes, it was—beating Phelps was this huge thing and after that, it was difficult for me to get over that, that high into depression. Yes, in 2012, it was such a high for me, such a huge moment and after 2016, I really lit up my fire again and I wanted to be back on top, I wanted to have that feeling again. It wasn’t about Michael; I made a lot of mistakes.

It’s refreshing to see you being able to express your emotions on the podium, have you always been open—an open book so to speak?

Yes, it was emotional; it was just a very emotional trip because, obviously, with my parents getting cancer, especially my mom, it was a very difficult year for us. At one stage, it came back and it was fast-spreading and we didn’t know what could happen and thank God she is okay. Just everything, the last year, my family, all the people who doubted me, it all came together at that moment and it was just an overwhelming sense—it was, in some ways, bigger than 2012 because of everything. Yes, I was really, really happy and proud.

And what advice would you give to somebody with cancer in their family; to stay positive?

You must stay positive. My mom was very positive, she didn’t let it overcome her and it was just difficult. We were all very upset and we’re a very close family and that helped—all being together and not giving up, like I said earlier, it’s all about not quitting. Even if you are defeated, you don’t have to give up.

In other interviews, you’ve said that swimming is still quite a white sport. Slowly but surely, are we seeing a transformation?

With my new academy opening, that’s the one thing I want to change. And I want to get a lot more women in the sport as well, as well as people of colour. A lot of black swimmers are doing really well. Youngsters—six, seven, eight years old, young guys—just to see the enthusiasm on their faces. And if we can just tap into that, we can have more stars in the future.

It appears that a lot more top swimmers are coming from Asia, as opposed to the traditional kings like Australia and the USA. What do you attribute the global growth of the sport to?

Just seeing what everyone has done has helped a lot of people, I think. Michael helped everyone to realise that you can beat anybody. Once I beat Michael in 2012, that showed people that anything is possible, I was just from South Africa, didn’t have the facilities, and came up and shocked the world, which gave a lot of people hope. If you can train as hard as you can, you can be the best, then, win or lose, you have to be proud of yourself. If I never win another race again, I know that I am going to be proud of what I’ve done because I’ve worked hard and, like I said, if anyone beats me, good luck for them.

Finally, what are your thoughts on moving to Cape Town instead of moving to the United States?

I’ve always wanted to move to Cape Town, it’s one of my favourite cities but I’ve always wanted to show people that a home-grown can make it and that’s why I’m opening my academy up. Not like America, but just give opportunities, give kids opportunities to perform well here. With respect to a lot of places, it’s very difficult to make it to the top and I had amazing support from my family and the people around me, so I want to create that vibe in a team environment with my academy and that’s something that’s going to help South African swimming for years to come, hopefully. I want to change the game completely, so I have a plan for that and, yes, hopefully, it can take shape over the next couple of months and, by next year, we should be up and running.

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