For Chad le Clos, winning butterfly events may have become more difficult after Michael Phelps left the competition pool.
“It’s crazy. I actually never thought of that, to be honest,” Le Clos said of the situation in a Zoom call last week from a hotel in Budapest, where he is spending a month and a half competing in the International Swimming League (ISL) for the Energy Standard Swim Club. “I would rather have it this way than any other way.”
Le Clos, who upset Phelps in the 2012 Olympic 200m fly to launch a gripping rivalry, is now trying to chase down two younger fliers who broke Phelps’ world records at the 2019 World Championships. American Caeleb Dressel, 24, and Hungarian Kristof Milak, 20, now rule the pool in Le Clos’ trademark stroke.
“I wouldn’t want to win next year if Dressel’s not in the race,” Le Clos said. “That wouldn’t mean anything to me. I’ve always prided myself in racing the best. I mean, I went after Michael, right?”
Le Clos is able to swim against some of the world’s best right now with the ISL. Global stars convened in October for a six-week season, nine months before the Olympics. It marks the first top-level racing since the onset of the pandemic. Le Clos, who captained Energy Standard to the first ISL title last year, called the opportunity “unbelievably vital.”
“It’s been a long time since I’ve been with a team,” said Le Clos, whose teammates include fellow Olympic gold medalists American Matt Grevers, Sarah Sjöström of Sweden and Florent Manaudou of France. “The best swimmers in the world in one bubble, you never ever really get that.”
Le Clos’ return was rusty after spending months out of the pool in the spring and summer, but he won a 100m butterfly on Sunday and a 200m butterfly on Monday.
Milak is out of the ISL season after contracting the coronavirus in September. Le Clos and Dressel have already met in a 100m butterfly, which was won by American Tom Shields. Competition is in a 25-meter pool, versus the 50-meter pool used for the Olympics.
“What I love about Chad is he’s not full of excuses, and it when it comes to racing, he’s here to race,” said James Gibson, Le Clos’ coach with Energy Standard. “We’ve still got a little way to go. I think that’s just a reflection of what’s happened over the last eight months. But he’s a very good guy, and he’ll get good quite quickly.”
Le Clos’ excitable dad, Bert, swears he has a newspaper clip somewhere at home from around 2004. In the article, a 12-year-old Chad declares he will win a 2012 Olympic gold medal … in the 200m breaststroke.
But Le Clos’ focus turned to butterfly. He watched on TV as Phelps won a record eight golds in 2008.
“I was a little 15-year-old kid. I said, dad, I’m going after that 200m fly,” Le Clos said, bringing up the Beijing Olympic final where Phelps’ goggles filled with water after he dived in, yet he still lowered his world record. “[Dad] said, ah, my boy, just relax. I love you, but you can’t beat him.”
Four years later in London, Le Clos handed Phelps his first defeat at a major international meet in a decade in the 200m fly, his signature event.
Rio was a different and complex story.
On Aug. 8, 2016, Le Clos took silver in the 200m freestyle (behind the now-banned Chinese Sun Yang) in an African record time. (“He’s a cheat, he shouldn’t have been there,” Le Clos said last week of Sun, echoing comments from last winter. “One day, it would be great to get that gold medal on the record.”) After the medal ceremony, Le Clos rushed back to the ready room for the second 200m butterfly semifinal to start 35 minutes later.
A camera caught arguably the most memorable moment from the Rio Olympic swimming competition: Le Clos stood and shadow boxed in a baggy track suit. Phelps, in a dark blue hooded jacket, sat in a white folding chair in the row behind, staring straight with a scowl. It aired on NBC. #PhelpsFace trended.
Le Clos knew Phelps was there, but the South African remembers joking with another swimmer who wasn’t in the camera shot.
“I wasn’t trying to do anything to antagonize anybody,” Le Clos said, but he knows why it blew up, in part because he and Phelps traded comments the year before. “That storyline just fit in perfectly..
“I wasn’t, like, facing him [in the ready room] or anything like that. Looking back, it’s actually quite funny. I know a lot of people took it way out of context. So many messages — We loved it, or Michael’s going to kill you. We hate you.”
Minutes after the scene, Phelps said he was trying not to look at Le Clos. But he also paid respect to his rival, labeling the South African “tough.”
“He does his thing,” Phelps said after the semifinal that night. “I do my thing.”
The next night, Le Clos had what he called the worst performance of his career in the 200m fly final. He fell from second at 150 meters to finish fourth, seven tenths behind the winner Phelps. If Le Clos repeated his 2012 Olympic time, he would have won.
“I took it on the chin,” Le Clos said last week. “Full respect for Michael coming back after a couple of years and winning that back.”
Le Clos announced three weeks before the Rio Games that both of his parents were fighting cancer. Bert had surgery in June 2016 for prostate cancer, which he deemed minor and did not require chemotherapy.
Mom Geraldine had a more serious, second bout with breast cancer in six years. She had a double mastectomy earlier that spring.
Le Clos saw his mom leave the hospital before he departed South Africa for a pre-Olympic training camp and then the Games. A goodbye to his mom, lying in bed, aired in Le Clos’ 2016 film, “Unbelievable.”
“I feel very emotional even talking about it at the moment,” Geraldine said last week. “Just because I didn’t want [Chad] to worry about me as such. It was more about him. I wanted him to know that everything was going to be OK, really to play it more down than it really was.”
Both parents were able to travel to Brazil weeks later. Geraldine, halfway through six rounds of chemo, fell ill in Rio, but still made it for her son’s individual finals. They walked miles and waited hours in car service queues to get to and from the Olympic Park.
“With her being sick like that, it was really terrible,” Bert said. “What Chad achieved — he overachieved after seeing his mother lying in the hospital.”
In his last event, Le Clos was part of an unprecedented Olympic silver-medal tie with Phelps and another veteran, Hungarian Laszlo Cseh, in the 100m butterfly. In his final Olympic moments with Phelps, Le Clos remembered urging the trio to hold hands on the podium given the rarity of the circumstance.
“But the problem was, we started holding hands too quickly,” Le Clos said. “We were like, oh, this is awkward. So we were all laughing. The hands were sweating.”
Le Clos saw Phelps at an Omega event later on in Rio. Bert called Phelps “an absolute gentleman” for the family’s encounter with the 28-time medalist that night.
“[Phelps] shook my hand and hugged my wife before he went on stage,” Bert said. “Bodyguards and all that, they tried to keep us away. He said, ‘No, no, please, this is my family.'”
Le Clos had other issues outside the pool going on that summer. ‘Not just with my parents,” he said, “but it’s a conversation for another time.
“I’m not trying to disrespect the Olympic Games by saying silver is not good enough for me. I just feel like, I wish I could redo that week. If I could go back three, four weeks before, and I could change a few things, especially that week. I felt like it could have been a bit different, but I guess that’s life. We have our regrets.”
Of course, Le Clos wishes Phelps kept swimming. He now compares the completed rivalry to the relationship between the national men’s rugby teams of South Africa and New Zealand.
“After the game, they go into the changing room and have a beer together,” Le Clos said.
This Olympic cycle brought major life changes and obstacles. Less than a month after the Games, Le Clos announced a split from his coach of 14 years, Graham Hill. He moved from Durban to Cape Town, then joined the Energy Standard Swim Club, which trains in Turkey, in 2017.
Le Clos, a young breaststroker way back in 2004, is now coached by Gibson, who swam the breaststroke for Great Britain at the 2004 Athens Games.
“The best coach I’ve ever worked with, by far,” Le Clos said. He noted a scene from “The Last Dance” film on the 1990s Chicago Bulls, when head coach Phil Jackson allowed Dennis Rodman to skedaddle to Las Vegas between NBA Finals games.
“I’m not that guy, right? But [Gibson] understands the fact that some people need that,” Le Clos said. “I just think it’s very rare to find that in swimming where a coach actually understands people’s needs differently and doesn’t paint everyone with the same brush.”
After recapturing the world 200m fly title in 2017, Le Clos revealed a week before 2019 Worlds that he had a groin hernia that might require surgery after the meet.
He was the oldest swimmer in the 100m fly final won by Dressel. He was second-oldest in the 200m fly won by Milak. He took bronze in both events.
Le Clos has so far avoided the groin surgery that will sideline him for 12 weeks, but he expects to get it eventually, perhaps after Tokyo.
He had two other surgeries this past May while in South Africa — one for a cyst on his foot and the other through his stomach to treat longtime abdominal pain — and was out about seven weeks into early July.
“But the problem was, South Africa went back into lockdown,” Le Clos said. “So we couldn’t really train for long. It’s been a destructive year for me, unfortunately. Training hasn’t been the easiest for me. I don’t like to talk too much in it. It comes across a bit weak sometimes, but it is what it is.”
Back in 2012, Le Clos had no expectations. In 2016, he was the defending Olympic champion. Now, it’s another role.
Come next summer, he will be older than all but three men to win an individual Olympic swimming title in the last 60 years. The outliers: Anthony Ervin and Gary Hall in the 50m free, a veterans’ event, and Phelps.
“I’m not writing myself off at all, but obviously, on paper, I have no chance,” against Dressel and Milak, Le Clos said. “It’s looking like those two should win easily, so there’s no pressure on me.”
New coach. New environment. New outlook on life, Le Clos says.
“I’ve matured a hell of a lot the last two years, since Rio,” he said. “I just feel like I’m a different athlete. Whether I’m going to be better or not, I can’t say of course,
“I still can improve a lot more. I know it sounds crazy. I still think I’m not in my prime yet.”
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