INTERVIEW: Le Clos still haunted by Phelps defeat

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Down but not out: Chad Le Clos.

It’s been seven weeks since Chad Le Clos left Rio de Janeiro with two Olympic silver medals and a shocking fourth place in his beloved 200m butterfly and the South African swim star is admittedly still heartbroken over it.

Four years after beating Michael Phelps by a fingertip to win 200 fly gold at the London Olympics, Le Clos missed out on the podium, before capturing two silver medals in the 100m butterfly and the 200m freestyle to become South Africa’s most decorated Olympian in history. For many swimmers out there, a pair of Olympic silver medals is a massive accomplishment. For Le Clos, it barely classifies as a consolation.

In Rio, Phelps won the 200 fly gold in 1:53.36, almost two seconds slower than the world record the American legend set at Worlds in 2009. Le Clos came fourth in 1:54.06, well off the 1:52.96 he clocked to win gold in London 2012.

The 24-year-old from Durban is unable to explain how he went that slow, and even if he knows why, he refuses to articulate it.

“It haunts me, I’ll be honest, it does, it haunts me that 200 fly,” Le Clos told Sport360 ahead of the FINA Swimming World Cup leg in Dubai, which kicks off on Tuesday at the Hamdan Sports Complex.

“It’s hard for me to watch that race, I haven’t watched it since. I still can’t watch it; I’m not ready to watch it yet. To come fourth in 1:54.0, I did that time when I was 18,” he added. “It’s one bad race. The 200 free and the 100 fly, I got beat fair and square, the guys killed me. The silver was the best that I was going to get.

“But the 200 fly, with the absolute respect to Michael Phelps, he knows it, 1:53.3 is not… I mean I was going 1:54 in Mare Nostrum unshaven, unrested so… look congrats to him, it doesn’t matter about the time, times do not matter for me, I’d rather be Olympic champion and go 1:56, but it hurts because I know what I could have gone or what I should have gone.”

Phelps versus Le Clos was one of the most highly-anticipated duels in the pool these past Games but things did not unfold the way they were expected to. Things hardly ever do.

Le Clos’ build-up to Rio was rocked by the fact that both his parents, Bert and Geraldine, were fighting cancer.

His mother’s breast cancer returned this year after she had gone into remission in 2010. She is still undergoing treatment. Bert, who became a sensation during London 2012 when he made an emotional appearance on the BBC while watching his son beat Phelps to gold, found out he had prostate cancer and had surgery in June.

Both parents made it to Rio to watch their son make history for South Africa and Bert, who is here with Chad in Dubai, says he couldn’t be prouder of his accomplishments.

“It is very difficult for Chad. His mum has just finished chemo now, and she’s a little bit sick. I can’t imagine what it would be like, when I was a young man, I would have gone berserk and drinking and so on, he didn’t do that. He never fell apart which is a testament to him. It’s very difficult for him. And that doesn’t mean you’re making an excuse for losing. No, no, it’s not an excuse, it’s the reason,” Bert said on Monday.

“I told him and I’ll tell you, how many Olympic medallists do you know personally? My son is a four-time Olympic medallist. But in saying that, he can’t forgive himself. So it’s easy for somebody on the outside to say ‘oh but he’s the best Olympian in South Africa’ but that’s not the point, the point is you’ve got to forgive yourself.”

Le Clos concedes that what his family has gone through this past year has helped him keep things in perspective.

“It was hard, it was the hardest year ever, of course. To say the least, it was definitely harder than 2010 when my mum first got cancer. It was hard, but at the end of the day, my parents’ health is more important than the gold medals,” said Le Clos.

“My family is more important than anything and I think what I realised after the Olympics, as hard as it was, it wasn’t even the fifth worst thing that’s happened to me this year.

“As hard as it was to accept the fact that I didn’t do so well. But it makes the next competition, not easier, but I can take it harder on the chin now. I’ve been KO’ed, I’ve laid there for two minutes, I got back up and I’m ready to go again.

“It hurts but I promise I’ll be back, I’m not done by any stretch of imagination.”

Many wonder how Le Clos is not away resting somewhere and is instead competing in the short course Swimming World Cup series at the moment, but for him, jumping back in the pool is more therapeutic than anything else.

“I’m back in training and I’m here to win again. I’m not here for much else. I like to come to Dubai of course, I love to swim for the support but I’m here to just get back on the winning train, just to make myself feel good again,” he explains.

A lot has been made of the war of words that took place between Le Clos and Phelps last year and during Rio, a video of the South African air-boxing in front of a focused Phelps in the holding room before their race went viral, so did an image of Le Clos looking at his American rival during the final metres of the 200 fly. “The moment Le Clos realised he lost to Phelps” was the accompanying caption, as social media did everything possible to fuel the rivalry between the pair.

Le Clos insists there are no hard feelings between them.

“Before the Olympics there was obviously small tension you could say. But after the Olympics we were great. After the heats of the 200 fly we were fine. There were things that got blown out of proportion by the media, it really has, and we spoke afterwards at the Omega house and we had dinner together with my family and his family there. I got to meet Boomer and Nicole which is nice. He seems very happy, he seems very different. I’m happy for him, I truly wish him all the best. I’d love to race him again,” said Le Clos.

Losing to Phelps was not the only memory Le Clos can take away from Rio. There was a historic moment when Le Clos, Phelps and Laszlo Cseh all shared silver with the first-ever swimming triple-tie at an Olympic Games as they placed second behind Singaporean youngster Joseph Schooling.

“That was cool. That silver was so historic. The three guys that were on the podium, me and Michael have such a long history, and Laszlo of course, he beat me last year at World Champs, and we’ve had this three-way (rivalry) almost you could say. It’s amazing,” said Le Clos, allowing himself for a second to reflect positively on Rio.

“Schooling, to win, congrats to him. It was one of those races where you couldn’t have predicted that, you would have had like a million to one odds and I think it’s special because in some ways, that was the maybe  the one thing that I could see like closest to a gold medal. If I had just got normal silver, it wouldn’t have been the same.”

On that photo that went viral of him glancing at Phelps during the 200 fly, Le Clos said: “What could have also been said was in 2012, the moment when I looked at him, was the moment I went past him.

“It (negative comments on social media) doesn’t annoy me because I know that people will have their opinions. Some of the stuff that was said was a bit ridiculous.

“Even Michael said it, he was like ‘I don’t even know what some of these guys are saying, how could they be bashing you? You’ve got two silvers at the end of the day’.

“We’ve all had disappointments but it’s not like I didn’t make the final, like a lot of other Olympic champions that were there.

“It is what it is and haters are going to hate. I’ve got too much support to worry about the haters. I know there’s a lot of people who were writing a lot of cr** on social media about me but I don’t lose sleep over it.”

Looking ahead, Le Clos embarks on a new chapter in his swimming career without his coach of 17 years, Graham Hill, by his side. The pair have parted ways after the Olympics and while Le Clos would not elaborate on all the reasons behind that decision, he assures it had nothing to do with his results in Rio.

“Thanks to Graham for everything, we’ve had a long 17 years together. It was obviously difficult but I need a bit of a fresh start. I wouldn’t say I’m leaving Graham because of anything, we’re still good friends and we still talk. I don’t want to say too much about it, but you’ll see in the next couple of weeks, there’s big things happening,” teased Le Clos.

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