World and Olympic champion Chad Le Clos admits he was hurt by his verbal spat with Michael Phelps during the World Championships in Kazan, and is keen to set the record straight, but has still questioned the American’s status as a role model in the sport.
Le Clos was told that Phelps, who was not in Russia having not been selected for the US team after his arrest for driving under the influence of alcohol 11 months earlier, had said that the butterfly events have been “slow” and the South African responded by stating that his sensational 50.56 seconds in the 100m butterfly in Kazan is a time the American had not clocked in four years.
The media quoted Le Clos as saying Phelps “can keep quiet now”.
Words started flying across the Atlantic between the South African and Phelps (who swam the US Nationals in San Antonio at the same time as Worlds) but Le Clos insists he was misinterpreted.
“They asked me a question about Michael Phelps, he was saying some stuff about me that wasn’t very nice and I felt a bit hurt,” Le Clos told Sport360° upon his arrival in Dubai on Wednesday, ahead of this weekend’s FINA/airweave Swimming World Cup (November 6-7), the final leg of the series.
“I didn’t want to fire back, it wasn’t like that. They just said to me ‘how do you feel about Michael saying the butterfly events are slow?’ and I said ‘look, I’ve just done a time he hasn’t done for four years and the time speaks for itself’.
“Then the headline was ‘Chad Le Clos tells everybody to shut up’ and then he comes along and says ‘I’ve done with trash talkers before…’.
“Firstly you must listen to what I’m saying, I didn’t slate you, I’ve always said he’s the greatest of all time, I don’t take that away from him.
“He’s my idol. Maybe not… I look up to him in swimming terms, that’s it. But if I was as great as he was, I would conduct myself in a way children would be proud of.
“I think people that watch me – obviously I get angry and I say some silly stuff sometimes – but you must conduct yourself in a way that other people can look up to. That’s what defines a champion, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, how many gold medals you have, you must be a true champion and I pride myself on being that, the people’s champion.
“I’m not afraid of Michael Phelps. That’s what everyone keeps saying ‘oh you’re taunting him’. I’m not taunting nobody. I said before that I hope he’s in good form because I want to race the best and I’m not afraid to face him one on one.”
More than three years have passed since Le Clos stole the show at the London 2012 Olympics, stunning Phelps to take 200m butterfly gold, and the South African concedes his life has been a whirlwind ever since.
With the Rio 2016 Games just nine months away, Le Clos, 23, knows that it’s time to refocus and keep his eye on the prize – that is another Olympic gold.
Last August, he was beaten in his signature event, the 200 fly, for the first time in three years as he touched the wall 0.20 seconds slower than Hungarian Laszlo Cseh to claim silver in Kazan.
Despite redeeming himself by clinching gold in the 100m fly three days later, with the second-fastest textile swim ever in the event (50.56 seconds), Le Clos still left Kazan a disappointed man.
“I’m definitely not satisfied. It was a difficult World Champs for me, obviously losing the 200 fly was an eye-opener. It was my first defeat in three years, it was hard for me to take,” Le Clos said.
“There’s many things I could have done differently, but you know I don’t make excuses, you win or you lose. There are many reasons why I never won that race but it’s not for me to say. It takes credit away from Laszlo who was the champion.”
Le Clos is looking forward to clocking some decent times in Dubai this weekend, to follow his impressive showings in Doha earlier in the week. He feels he’s 80 per cent ready for Rio, which will witness a fierce three-way battle between Cseh, Le Clos and Phelps. Would Le Clos consider talking things out with the American?
“I don’t mind. I thought I was good friends with him, clearly not. I don’t think he likes me very much,” he said with a smile. “It doesn’t matter for me. I can control the controllable, CTC.
“I know what I need to do, if I can tick all the boxes and I can be the best Chad Le Clos that I can, if I lose next year, I lose to the better man, maybe I come fourth. There’s no excuses from my side.
“If you look at all these other guys that make excuses when they lose ‘I had a bad start, I had a bad turn’… come on, what is this? Are we children? Didn’t your parents teach you not to say that?
“I know where I am and I know who I am so I don’t need any of those guys to like me.”
In a way, getting that wake-up call at Worlds was like a blessing in disguise because it showed Le Clos he needed to do better in order to add Olympic gold medals to his resume. He knows where he went wrong and knows how to fix it.
“Before Olympics all I did was I swam, I was just focused on doing that. After Olympics I’ve changed, it takes you by storm, you can’t prepare yourself for that. I think I got caught up in a lot of things, not bad things, just distracting things, things that have to be done. My time management wasn’t good and my training suffered, I’d be tired, it wasn’t optimal, it wasn’t where I needed to be,” he concedes.
“It was good enough for maybe normal, good swimmers, but I want to be above that, I want to be the best. So it wasn’t good enough for me and I think at World Champs I paid the price of maybe a year of doing all that stuff, a year and a half. And to be honest I was getting away with my 2012 base training so I’m working to get my base back.
“My distance, my 200 fly long hard grinding out sets so to speak, my speed is a lot better than it was, I’m swimming fairly fast 100 freestyle now. So that’s all good.
“But obviously I won the 200 fly at the Olympics so I can’t go and focus on too many other things.”
He’s looking forward to the tough field in the 200 fly and is not shying away from the competition.
“It’s good. I’ve always wanted to race the best, I said that before Olympics. There’s no secret why I swam butterfly, it’s because of Michael Phelps,” says Le Clos.
“I want to beat the best or I want to lose to the best. I’m not going to go look for the easy route like everyone else does. For me it’s about the race, it’s not about the time, it’s not about anything else, it’s about winning that gold medal in the moment. So I believe that on the day I could beat anybody.”