By Mark Etheridge┬áin London
On 18 July, 2012 Chad le Clos said on his Twitter acount: “Today we celebrate a birthday of a living legend @nelsonmandela happy birthday Sir hope to do you proud at the Olympics”.
Just 13 days later at the 2012 Olympic Games here in London he did not only Madiba but the entire South African nation proud by winning the 200-metre butterfly final and beating American legend Michael Phelps in the processs.
Barely 20 years old, the emotion bubbled to the surface as the KwaZulu-Natal swimmer cried during the medal ceremony and came close again at the post-race press conference.
“My dad has always said ‘ live your dreams and never give up’… my┬á dream was to make an Olympic final. I dreamt about it but never thought I’d win… I’m so very happy to have my family in my corner for support.”
Paying huge tribute to Phelps who has now won 19 Olympic gold medals, a record, Le Clos said: “I┬á watched him win six gold medals in Athens 2004 and it was such an honour to swim next to him tonight. I┬á just wanted to try and beat him, I’ve watched all his races a million times over but now I guess I can watch my own race a bit!
“He’s left a legacy .. changed the way people think about swimming in South Africa, maybe I can do the same in South Africa now.”
And with the honesty of youth Le Clos, whose 1min 52.96sec personal best beat Phelps by just 0.05sec, said: “The finish was very similar to the 100 ‘fly at Beijing. I was honestly lucky at the finish but it was the perfect finish for me. I’ve actually got that 2008 final on my laptop and it’s just so awesome to have beaten him.”
Of the final length which he started in third spot he said: “I thought that it was Michael when I turned and then when I turned I saw him and trigger points kicked in. The last 25 metres came in slow motion and I just remembered thinking that my coach [Swimming SA head coach, Graham Hill] told me to ‘keep it long and don’t shorten up’ .. and┬á that if I get there first he’s going to be happy.”
Phelps congratulated Le Clos after his epic swim: “I was dreaming a bit but he said ‘live the moment and enjoy it because it’s really special” and it was.
“Hopefully this is the start of something great… we have a fantastic group of swimmers here and its looking positive for 2016 … even the youngsters back home ÔÇô I can name a few of them that will be here at the Games in four years .. but the main thing was that the country was behind me, that┬á support from home plays a big role.”
Last word from the vanquished Phelps on the new kid on the block: “I’ve been watching him for about a year now and he’s a very driven youngster, he’s determined and has a hunger about him.”