Still time for Le Clos to be an ‘all-time great’
Swimmer is training hard to beat Michael Phelps at Rio Olympics, writes Duncan Guy
IT’S THE week between returning from the Doha championships and Turffontein in the hectic life of Durban swimming star Chad le Clos. He is sitting, sporting a Movember beard, on a comfortable couch in front of a large-screen television set in the upstairs flat that is his section of his family’s Pinetown home, nearly R700 000 richer after coming second to another South African, Cameron van der Burgh, in the Fina World Cup Series in Dubai.
The place is a hive of activity with swimming lessons in progress in the pool in the front garden, and his ever-present dad, Bert, cooking up a huge spaghetti bolognaise “for the boys who will be hungry after swimming”.
They are Le Clos and his swimming mates who are keeping him company as sits with his leg up with an ice pack on his knee, an inflammation he picked up in Doha. He didn’t pick it up from swimming the 140km he clocked in the pool at the Fina Swimming World Cup in Qatar, but from walking.
“I would always walk to the pool. It was a quicker way of getting there than taking transport through the city. Our accommodation was quite far. (The inflammation) is to do with my mechanics. I have bad feet.”
His dad expected to see him arrive in a wheelchair on Friday when he jetted into King Shaka International Airport where more walking would have been expected at the airport. (In a few weeks, Durbanbound passengers will be able to fly direct on the new Qatar Airlines).
But Le Clos walked in on “all twos”, slap into a welcoming crowd of youngsters from the Lamontville Swimming Club.
He’s been keeping his legs still, sticking to arm training at Lahee Park pool.
Today, however, the Olympic gold medallist will be flying up to Johannesburg for a day at the races. He’ll watch Unbelievable Chad le Clos, a horse he has shares in that he calls “my baby”, on the track at Turffontein Race Course.
“Dad suggested I try horses, not for the money, just for enjoyment. It gives me a different side to life.
“I am excited. I am attached to the horse. I feel the proud uncle. The trainer (Bert’s friend, Paul Lafferty) is the father.”
The jockey wears a hat of the same green Le Clos wears representing South Africa, and his green jacket is decorated with Olympic rings.
“She won her maiden race at Scottsville. I want her to run in the Durban July one day. I look at her as myself. I like to win.”
“Win” is perhaps a new keyword for Le Clos, 10 months before the Rio Olympics, as he looks back on who he was 10 months before the London Olympics of 2012.
“Ten months before London I was just fine winning world titles. I wasn’t by any means a favourite for a gold and I didn’t have lots of press.
“It was a time when I needed a medal rather than to win.”
Before the London Olympics, Le Clos was 19, fresh out of Westville Boys’ High.
“You beat the best and life changes,” he says, referring to his beating arch-rival American Phelps at the 2012 event.
“You become a household name in South Africa, and in the world.
“You can’t prepare for that. Flying around the world, life changes. It comes with the territory.”
His challenge has since been to not only maintain himself but also to manage being in the media spotlight.
“I have to deal with media obligations. I was told that after the Olympics it would all be easier. It’s actually harder. The pressure of staying at the top, nursing injuries.
“There’s a lot more pressure on me this time around but I am definitely now more mature as an athlete.”
He credits his family for helping him through.
“I don’t have a sports psychologist. But I think this (a supporting family) is the best way to deal with the pressure.”
Socially, he makes an effort to stick to himself and being without a cellphone helps.
“I just keep to myself. I do what I need to do.”
At the centre of his social circle are his family and friends.
Friends are mainly swimming groups and people he was at school with – about half and half.
“I don’t have many friends,” he says. “Just close friends.”
Le Clos also believes that being South African is an asset.
“We don’t have the greatest facilities but we make it happen. We aren’t paid the same money as Americans and Australians, but we’re tougher. We want it that much more.
“I attribute how we are to our history.
“I am grateful for where we come from. I am proud of what we have achieved. It’s not just because of luck.”
South Africa has also provided the opportunity to be a “people’s champion” in a diverse society.
“My support in South Africa is from fans of all races.
I go into townships and other places and I am exposed to many different cultures.”
Another challenge against Phelps awaits Le Clos at next year’s Olympics.
“It’ll be the race of the century in Rio. I want to race Phelps at his best. It will be a big achievement for a young Durban boy who had a dream. Beating Michael Phelps twice will be a big honour. “May the best man win.” He doesn’t think his arch-rival likes him very much.
“We used to be in touch but he unfollowed me on Twitter. Maybe it’s just because he’s focused now.
“But he’ll always be a role model in terms of what he has achieved in the world.”
Swimming aside, Le Clos looks forward to experiencing the city of Rio. “The football will be great, we’ll have a nice carnival-like time on the beach.
“Beach volleyball will be a cracker to watch.
“It will be hard for anywhere to beat London as a city to host the Olympics for the way it was run. Plus, there was no language barrier.
“But if any place will beat London, it will be Rio.” And after that? Le Clos expects to be slowing down a bit by the time the 2022 Commonwealth Games are held on home ground but there’s nonetheless time still “for me to establish myself as an all-time great”.
TAKING IT EASY: Chad le Clos at home with a cold pack on his knee.