By Gary Lemke
In the chaos that followed Chad le Clos winning South Africa’s first swimming gold medal at the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi, the 200m butterfly, he was led up one blind alley after another. ‘Take him for drug testing!’ ‘The media want to see him, now!’ ‘No, he must pee in the bottle first!’ the manic local organisers argued.
With a towel draped over his wet shoulders and wearing only a speedo, he was pulled from one part of the bowels of the swimming complex to another by the volunteers.
‘Sorry for the confusion,’ someone offered. ‘No worries. I’ll do the dope testing first if that’s OK? It means that I must have done something right ÔÇª I’d better get used to the feeling,’ the Westville Boys’ High matric pupil replied.
Since then, Le Clos has become accustomed to the inconvenience of performing on tap for sport’s professional piss-takers. So much so that on the 2011 Fina Short Course World Cup circuit ÔÇô in which he was named the outstanding male swimmer and earned a $100 000 bonus for the accolade ÔÇô he would joke with the testers. ‘Thanks, I hope to see you again tomorrow night.’
Without question, Le Clos has star quality. He also has the X factor and his coach, Graeme Hill, calls him ‘the most special talent I’ve seen in the past 20 years’. And if you ask if Hill is qualified to make that statement, then also ask if Arsene Wenger was qualified to call Wayne Rooney ‘the best young English footballer I’ve seen’, a few seasons ago.
Le Clos used the springboard of five golds at the Youth Olympics in Singapore in 2010 to win two individual golds at the Commonwealth Games, although back then he would not dare to mention himself in the same sentence as the Olympic legend, Michael Phelps. Despite winning the 200m butterfly in Delhi with a barnstorming finish, his time of 1min 56.48sec, a Games record, was still a considerable way off Phelps’ best. The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, not 2012 in London, would be Le Clos’ coronation, once the great American moved on, the aficionados predicted.
A year ago the South African refused to talk about Phelps, not out of fear, but respect. ‘He’s won 14 Olympic gold medals and he’s been unbeaten in the 200m ‘fly for something like eight years,’ he said. ‘I’ll only ever know how good I am when I earn a start against him.’
In Moscow in October, Le Clos not only raced against the great man ÔÇô but he beat him, in his signature event, the 200m butterfly. It’s right here that a healthy dose of reality needs to be swallowed. Phelps is not a short-course natural and if truth be told he doesn’t attach much stock to it. His long-course best is faster than his short-course best, which is an anomaly. Short course is swum in a 25m pool, and long course (which hosts the World Championships and Olympics) are 50m laps. It’s as different as sevens rugby is to the 15-man code, or T20 is to 50-over cricket. The same names can compete, but not necessarily dominate.
As an example, at the 2011 Long Course World Championships Phelps won gold in 1min 53.34sec; Le Clos’ lifetime best was good enough only for fifth place.
And it’s something the teenager understands. ‘Yes, I did beat him, but it wasn’t at the Olympic Games or the World Champs, which is where he dominates. Over the course of the World Cup I got to meet him and talk to him. He’s really down to earth and we’re friends. Actually, not friends as such ÔÇª it’s not ideal to be friends with someone you want to beat ÔÇª but, you know, friendly.’ There’s a good head on those broad 19-year-old shoulders.
One of Le Clos’ strengths is the swiftness of his turns and his kick off the wall, which is why he’s been so effective over the short course, with its turns every 25m. It helped him to 23 golds, 10 silvers and two bronzes ÔÇô ironically, the occasion he beat Phelps in Moscow he won silver ÔÇô and over the World Cup he raced over 9 200m in total.
The young swimmer is a bundle of energy, zest and ambition. He’s also got a huge fan base and it stretches far and wide. The girls are attracted to him, and what’s not to like. Good looks, world-class sportsman’s physique, personality, an athlete going places ÔÇª he’s a real eligible athlete. Someone asked me recently: ‘Can he be South Africa’s next true superstar?’
The answer always has to come with a disclaimer. It’s a yes ÔÇô but he’s a swimmer. A headline act three weeks before an Olympics and two weeks afterwards.
Le Clos knows what we’re talking about. ‘I was asked to speak at the National Sports Indaba by the minister of sport. It was a great opportunity. But I also met other sportsmen, like Victor Matfield and John Smit, and I realised how lucky our Springboks are. When they go to the World Cup, the whole country gets behind them in their Bok Friday shirts. Being away on tour, knowing that South Africa is actively showing their support for you, must be a huge inspiration.
‘Then I wonder why we swimmers can’t have the same support, from government, from sponsors, from corporates, from the public. After all, we’re Springboks as well in a sense, but we’re called Proteas, like any other codes that represent South Africa.’
Penny Heyns, the greatest swimmer ever to come from South Africa, often related that when she walked through a shopping mall in Tokyo she used to have to wear a baseball cap pulled low over her eyes to avoid being recognised. In her home town of Durban she could stroll around freely without anyone taking a second glance. At the moment, that’s the case with Le Clos. If he arrived in Cape Town, he’d be less recognisable than a rugby player from the Western Province Vodacom Cup side ÔÇô and it’s against this backdrop that our Olympic sportsmen and women compete.
However, Le Clos experienced a taste of how the other half, the rugby players, the cricketers, the soccer players, live.┬á’I was about to catch a flight to London and time was tight. When I got to the boarding gate, the guy looked at my ticket and then looked at me and said, ÔÇ£Hold on, sir.ÔÇØ I thought, ÔÇ£Oh no, what’s the problem.ÔÇØ Then, he steered me in another direction and I discovered I’d been upgraded to business class. I think SASCOC might have arranged it. But what a flight! I had such an awesome sleep from Joburg to London and when I got off the plane I felt like I could have gone and swum ÔÇ¿my race there and then. It makes such a difference to flying economy.’
Over the next few months, in the build-up to London 2012, Le Clos is going to get used to being regarded as a medal probable. After all, he’s beaten the greatest there is, Phelps, and by that yardstick all logic goes out the window. Yet, the reality is that he’s going to have to swim faster than ever before to get into the top five in the men’s 200m butterfly, let alone on the podium.
He will end 2011 with an American, a Japanese, two Chinese, a Hungarian and an Austrian ahead of him. King of the Commonwealth does not always translate into Lord of the Rings.
He’s also going to swim more individual medleys, like Phelps, ahead of London.
But he has a trump card. The return to the textile swimming suits at the beginning of 2010, which returned the sport from the stratosphere of the full-body buoyant suits that saw over 200 world records obliterated, helped his career. Perhaps even saved it.
In 2009 Le Clos picked up a groin injury which resulted in him not being able to deliver a breaststroke kick for four months. The full-body suit then helped mask the injury. ‘I was 17 when I was using those [now banned] suits. By the time 2010 came along and we returned to textile I found I’d forgotten how to kick properly. I’m now getting stronger and the rehab is going well. There’s a huge difference in my swimming.’ As there is elsewhere.
It’s true to say that Le Clos was a mischievous teenager at school 12 months earlier, who has been thrown into swimming’s deep end. At the Commonwealth Games his room-mate, Cameron van der Burgh, had to dissuade him from walking around the athletes’ village in flip flops, ‘because they work the calves’. Only in January did Le Clos introduce himself to the world of Twitter, with a simple, ‘hi’. Eleven months later he still had recorded less than 100 tweets and didn’t care much. ‘I’m not into technology. I have my PlayStation and my music; I’m not into Twitter and stuff.’
However, under a new manager, the former track sprinter Lee-Roy Newton, Le Clos knows change is inevitable. After the World Cup series he began paying more attention to the social network medium and quickly broke through the 1 000 followers mark. Things are moving quickly for the South African who has the world at his fingertips.
This story first appeared in the January edition of Business Day Sport Monthly. Lemke is editor of Business Day Sport Monthly and the co-author of double Olympic champion Penny Heyns’ autobiography.