msafiri talks to Chad Le Clos about his career, the people that have inspired him and his future aspirations…
It already seems a long time ago, but let’s start by talking of your memories of the London Olympics when you famously beat the mighty Michael Phelps to take gold! That moment must have transformed your career?
”And my life too! Words cannot describe how I felt. It really meant a lot to me because Phelps was intending to retire after the London Olympics, so it was the only opportunity I had to beat the greatest Olympian ever. It was very special. When I watch that race, even now I am emotional. I also shed a tear thinking about what went into that race and what it meant to me.
“Eight years ago, when I was a 12-year-old boy who looked up to Michael Phelps as a hero, or more like a god… I didn’t think I’d be beating him later in life. My coach Graham Hill and I call it destiny.”
A lot of people thought Phelps was virtually unbeatable. But presumably as a fan you knew his tactics and his race style pretty well?
”I did. I’ve played Michael’s swims on DVD since 2004, and I’d like to say I fell in love with him. Not romantically – ladies are definitely my thing! But we studied every single race. I knew if I was going to beat him I had to beat him at his own game.”
Is Phelps still a hero for you, even though you have beaten him?
”Oh, for sure, he is my hero of all time. Racing against him in the final was the greatest moment for me. Winning in that final will always be the most overwhelming feeling in my life. And afterwards he came to wish me good luck. He said: ‘Go and collect your gold medal.’ Michael told me he was going to retire after the Games, so he was saying it was now up to me to take over. He’s an amazing guy.”
Did you see your gold medal as an opportunity to promote swimming in South Africa and encourage more people to take part?
”Definitely. I once read that Nelson Mandela said ‘sport unites a nation’ and I really think that’s true. I am so proud to be a part of that message. There were thousands of people at the airport when I came back home after London and that was great because sportspeople – swimmers included – need encouragement. We are not all born champions, we need the support.”
What would your message be to young swimmers all over Africa?
“It’s a simple message. Keep going. Don’t give up on your dream, even if you fail in your first attempt. We have all messed up in our life, but you can always bounce back.”
What does it take to be a great swimmer?
”It’s tough, I have to say that. The public doesn’t understand the sport. It’s very lonely – ask any swimmer. You’re at the bottom of the pool looking at the black line the whole day. It takes dedication to get to the top. It’s not like you’re a substitute in a soccer game, you come on and score the winning goal in the last minute and you’re a hero. There’s no one here like that in swimming – you can’t just dive in and beat Michael Phelps.”
So what next? What is your ultimate goal for the future once the World Championships are done and dusted?
”I want to break some of Phelps’ records and match what he’s achieved. I want to swim the same races Phelps did. I want to do those eight. To compare yourself to one of the best swimmers of all time, you have to go through the same things he did.”
Well, that would mean going to Rio in the next Olympics in 2016 and winning a heap of gold medals!
“Exactly. You can’t go to the next Olympics and win one gold medal; I want to be remembered for something.
“I want to win both the individual medley races at the next Olympics – I think the most complete swimmer at the Olympics is the 400m individual medley swimmer. So for me that’s the big race. I really want to leave my mark after Rio. That’s the goal – to get as many medals as I can.”
• Age: 21
• Nationality: South African
• Born: Durban
• Achievements: Olympic 200m butterfly champion, Olympic 100m butterfly silver medalist; Youth Olympics gold medalist, Commonwealth Games double champion and record holder, five All-Africa Games gold medals, two World Championship golds (prior to the 2013 championships)
• Personal awards: Silver Order of Ikhamanga, African Swimmer of the Year 2012
Africa’s top swimmers
Chad Le Clos isn’t the only swimmer in Africa going for glory these days. South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh won gold in the 100m breaststroke in London while Kirsty Coventry of Zimbabwe is the African women’s swimmer of the year. And look out for Kenya’s own Jason Dunford – the African butterfly champion who has starred at Commonwealth and Olympic Games’ too.