Chad Le Clos interview: Motivated by Michael Phelps' legacy
There’s something particularly special about witnessing an athlete conquer his idol on the biggest stage there is.
That bittersweet changing-of-the-guard moment where history is made, heroes are humbled, fans are dumbstruck and one young athlete realises his lifelong dream.
It’s a moment that Chad le Clos can proudly recount for years to come after he bested his childhood idol, the world’s most decorated Olympian, Michael Phelps, in his signature event at the London Games last year.
Le Clos sent out a warning when he was crowned world champion in the 200m butterfly at the World Short Course Championships in Dubai in 2010, but heading into the Olympics, he knew that beating Phelps in that event in London was going to be a monumental task.
But as Phelps went for the glide and the South African’s arms closed onto the pool wall five-hundredth of a second faster than the American, the Durban-native provided one of the biggest upsets in swimming history.
Following the Olympics, le Clos said he struggled with some shoulder problems and had a wobbly few months but the 21-year-old returns to Dubai this weekend coming off a double gold medal-winning performance at the World Championships in Barcelona, and a strong run of results in the first three legs of the Swimming World Cup Series.
With Phelps retiring from the sport, taking with him the target on his back that had been fueling le Clos’s assault, many thought his drive would wane. But judging from his results this year, that surely doesn’t seem to be the case.
“Michael has left me with plenty of motivation for the rest of my life!” le Clos told Sport360° at the Hamdan Sports Complex ahead of the fourth leg of the Swimming World Cup series. “His legacy of 18 golds at the Olympics is outstanding. I’m not saying I’m trying for that record, but if I can get as many golds as I can and climb up the ladder; I guess that’s what it’s about.
“If you want to leave a legacy, you have to do something exceptional and hopefully, in the next few years something like that will come along my way.”
Le Clos has set the ongoing Swimming World Cup series and next season’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow as his short-term goals with an eye firmly fixed on the Rio 2016 Olympics. But he dreams of breaking Phelps’ 1:51.51 world record in the 200m butterfly.
“I do want to get a world record of course, and if it is Michael’s, that would be fantastic,” he says. “It was done in the suits era – a very fast era of swimming – so hopefully, in the next few years, I don’t know how long it will take me but I do believe somehow, somewhere I’ll get there.”
Le Clos has tasted what it’s like to break a world record though in short course competition two months ago in Eindhoven, where he clocked a record 1:49:04 in the 200m fly. Together with his two golds in the 100m and 200m in Barcelona, he admits he’s having a phenomenal season.
“Barcelona was great for me. You could say it was a better year in swimming terms than last year because I got double gold. But also the world record was very special,” he says. “My mom and dad were going to go home but I told them to stay an extra week to watch me in Eindhoven and I got the world record there. There are small things in your career you remember forever – your first world record, your first gold medal, your first championship and it’s no different for me.”
The success in the pool has changed his life out of it. He says the fan support and media attention he’s been getting has been unbelievable and the perks that come with being a world and Olympic champion have been a nice added bonus.
“There’s been a lot of things that I’ve enjoyed,” he says. “One of them was the Laureus Awards this year in Rio. That was a huge thing in my life. We got to meet all the greats from tennis, football, swimming, running, it was just amazing. Also going to Old Trafford a month ago to watch a live game. That was something I’ve always wanted to do.”
His father, Bert, was a big hit at the Olympics last year thanks to his emotional reaction to his son’s victory while he was on air on the BBC and since then, he has been attracting almost as much attention as his son. But Bert insists his son remains the main attraction: “It’s like beauty and the beast. I’m the beast, he’s beauty.
“I knew he was going to do something special from the day he was born. When he was about eight, I saw that he never gave up. That’s the biggest sign. You can have as much talent as you want. I can teach you talent, I can teach you to swim, but I can’t teach you to have the heart. The heart comes within. And that’s his greatest attribute.”
Chad has a huge following in Dubai thanks to impressive showings in 2010 and in the 2011 World Cup and Bert recalls the first time his son wowed crowds at the Hamdan pool. “I was here for the first time when he won the world championship. It was one of the best days of my life. I sat for half an hour, I couldn’t move,” says Bert.
“I was shocked that he won because he was still in school when he became the world champion here. This is sort of his favourite ground, besides London because obviously he won the Olympics there.”