At the age of just twenty, Chad Le Clos announced himself on the world stage at the 2012 Olympics by achieving the ‘unbelievable’ — stunning his childhood pool hero Michael Phelps to win the 200 meters butterfly gold in London.
Fast forward to 2014, the South African swimming star has now become a global force — winning medals at all the major competitions, including the FINA Worlds and the Commonwealth Games. This week, the Durban-born youngster achieved new milestones in Doha which hosted the 12th FINA World Short-Course Swimming championships.
He made history by sweeping all races in butterfly, clinching gold medals for 50m, 100m and 100m. Also, by winning the 200m freestyle, he became the first South African swimmer to win four individual gold medals in a global contest.
In an interview, the star swimmer told ‘The News on Sunday’ about the experience of his historic triumph against Phelps, his recent performance in Doha and how he would train for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
Following are the excerpts from the interview.
Q: First of all, congratulations on your brilliant show in Doha. Let’s start with the short-course championships: how do you rate your performance and how satisfied are you?
A: I am very satisfied; in fact, more than satisfied. It was an amazing experience. Since I had arrived in Doha a few days before the event, my preparations were very good. Four gold medals, including three butterfly titles — I am very proud of what I have achieved.
Q: Five days, 23 world records, how do you look at it?
A: It’s great because swimming needs a bit of boost. There were a lot of upsets in the last five days, people unexpectedly breaking records which was great to see.
Q: How was your stay in Doha?
A: Great! I was here before also for a training camp in June and later in the worlds in August. It’s always been very good for me to be here because I’ve never lost in Doha.
Q: What is your next international assignment?
A: My next major assignment will possibly be Kazan, Russia, (FINA World Championships in July-August) next year. Before that we will be up for the European circuit in July.
Q: How do you see your overall performance in 2014?
A: The start (of this year) was not very good . . . a few injuries and sickness. But then I went for the Commonwealth Games where my performance was not bad. Then I won the World Series and the (recent) four gold medals is my best performance so far. So, the second half of this year was good for me. But there could have been a lot more improvement, in my opinion.
Q: You say you want to get faster every year. What are your targets in the coming year?
A: Next year will be long course… very important. I had a great short-course season this year. My long course (performance) should be a lot better if I want to challenge the big guys. I need to work a bit harder on my fitness and I am very excited about the next year.
Q: Let’s speak about your biggest achievement — beating Michael Phelps in London Olympics?
A: That was great, the most delightful moment of my life — something for which I had been working hard since I was a young boy. To win two medals, a gold and a silver, was a big achievement for me. Since then, I have been striving to get better, trying to improve every year.
Q: Did you expect to beat Phelps that day?
A: It’s a difficult question to answer. I had always wondered what the best way to beat Michael could be. It was my dream to beat him. I knew I had a chance but I had to swim a perfect race. So the race you guys saw on TV was the perfect race for me. I think everything I asked that day actually happened. It was my destiny to beat Michael on the biggest stage. I always wanted to be a sports superstar.
Q: Phelps is planning to return after his suspension ends in March. How do you see the challenge?
A: I wish him all the best for everything. I think if he comes back, it will be really great for sports, great for me. We will renew the rivalry but it’s all up to him to decide on his comeback.
Q: Do you still see him as a force to be reckoned with?
A: Of course! You can’t write off the greatest Olympian. It’s very hard to say he won’t be back (with success). He is a very determined guy.
Q: The 2016 Olympics are not very far. How are you planning to prepare for Rio?
A: We are really training hard and travelling to get to most races. The year 2015 will be challenging for me . . . but more training than racing as I did this year. Next year we will be doing grueling and long stuff for the preparations.