Chad le Clos was yet to take the beard off but he’s got his game face on as he goes in search of history at these Commonwealth Games, writes GARY LEMKE in Gold Coast, Australia.
South Africa’s swimming superstar came to his third Commonwealth Games with 12 medals to his name, five fewer than Australian shottist Phillip Adams, who collected 17 medals in six Games between 1982 and 2002. Le Clos has the number in his head and is focused on doing something special – with some help from his relay teammates – to equal, and dare we dream, eclipse that mark here in Australia.
Whatever you are doing on Friday and wherever in the world you are – it will be 7:37pm in Australia and 11:37am in South Africa – drop everything. For 19 minutes only. Le Clos swims two finals in those 19 minutes, first up the 50-metre butterfly and then the 200m freestyle – although he still has the small matter of qualifying for that final in the earlier morning session.
It’s fair to say that the 25-year-old – he celebrates turning 26 next week (12 April) – is well on his way to becoming the greatest swimmer South Africa has produced. Some would argue that he is already, and there’s little doubt that if he were English he could one day expect a tap on the shoulder from the Queen. For now though, he can simply bathe in the adulation of those who appreciate a giant at the peak of his powers.
Perhaps we haven’t yet seen the best of Le Clos – who has put the 2016 Rio Olympics behind him – in a year in which he was going through a lot of personal anguish which affected his efforts in the pool, and he’s looking cool and calm on the Gold Coast, and all ready to collect.
Le Clos will have benefited from the disqualification of England’s 2014 Commonwealth Games gold medallist, Ben Proud, in the morning’s 50m butterfly heats. Proud controlled the heat to beat Le Clos to the wall, the South African comfortably second best in 23.53sec, before the screens at the impressive 12,500 open-air aquatic complex showed a big ‘DQ’ next to his name.
‘It’s never a nice thing to see,’ Le Clos said of his rival’s misfortune. Once the sun had set and conditions were different, Le Clos came back for the evening semi-final, where he stood next to countryman Ryan Coetzee. The pair have been training together since they arrived in Australia and look relaxed in each other’s company.
What followed was a race in which Coetzee reacted quicker off the blocks but Le Clos quickly got ahead and it stayed like that to the wall, the pair touching in 23.94 – the same time he had clocked hours earlier – and 23.79 respectively, which for Coetzee was 0.15 quicker than his morning heat and a personal best.
‘It’s something like five years since I got that previous PB,’ said the 22-year-old Coetzee.
‘Standing on the blocks next to Chad and being in the lane next to him helped me relax a lot,’ Coetzee said, after his time had placed him joint second fastest going into the final. ‘I preferred swimming this morning, with the sun on my back… I prefer those conditions to the night time, but I was relaxed. Hopefully I can continue improving and win a medal, why not?’ Why not indeed.
Le Clos reckoned that he and Coetzee recently had 6x25m ‘races’ from the blocks and that the youngster had beaten him. With that reaction Coetzee must have a chance of hitting the water quickly and holding on for a medal. We know that Le Clos will be right there though.
‘This pool is not necessarily all that fast, and it’s suited for those who like to race. I’m a racer, I want to win every time I get into the water. I’m hoping to go quicker in the final, and I know that the others will be doing so as well. I have 10 minutes between finals but I’ve prepared for that,’ Le Clos said.
One gets the feeling that he is switched on to create history. And he deserves to have every South African fan swimming every stroke with him. ‘It’s the first time that I’ve ever been seeded first going into a [major] 50m butterfly final, so from that perspective I can understand if people are saying that I’m the favourite to win the gold medal. But, there’s still a lot of work ahead.’
Elsewhere on the first evening of swimming finals – which saw the first world record of the Games produced when Australia’s 4x100m freestyle women came home to the roar of the patriotic home crowd – South Africa’s Tatjana Schoenmaker booked her place in the final of the women’s 50m breaststroke, although her evening swim was a little off her African record of 30.92 set in the morning.
Was it an African record, or not? ‘People have been congratulating me all day, so I think it is,’ she said after her semi-final. The local statisticians and meet organisers also reckon it is, but other students of the sport reckon that Penny Heyns’ 30.83 – swum in a time-trial and recognised at the time – is the African record. Still, it was good to see Schoenmaker come to these Games and produce the best breaststroke lap of her career from off the blocks.
Photo: Chad le Clos in action by Anton Geyser/Gallo Images