Chad le Clos talks about his relationships with the water, his family, coach and fans.
Chad Le Clos seared himself on to the consciousness of sports fans across the world when he beat his idol Michael Phelps in his final 200m butterfly race at the 2012 Olympics.
Le Clos inflicted the first defeat on Phelps over the distance at Olympic or world level since Sydney 2000 when he out-touched the American by 0.05 seconds.
Last year the Graham Hill-trained swimmer won two gold medals at the World Championships in Barcelona, determined to forge his own identity rather than be known as the man who beat Phelps.
On the horizon are the Commonwealth Games with the World Championships in Kazan in 2015 before all eyes turn to Rio de Janeiro the following year.
Here Chad talks about the relationships that are so important in his life: with the water, his coach, his family and his fans.
He charts his journey from a precociously talented if shy child through the devastation of his mother’s battle with breast cancer to the steely, determined Olympic and world champion who is resolute as a role model.
Chad was introduced to the water by his father Bert as a very young child in Durban.
The youngster took to it immediately and so a water baby was born.
Football was Chad’s first love but such was his talent in the water that in 2000 – having just turned eight – he joined Seagulls Swimming Club to train under Graham Hill.
That same year one of Hill’s charges Terence Parkin won the silver medal in the 200m breaststroke at the Sydney Olympics, a feat all the more notable given the swimmer’s deafness.
Chad was in his own words “a really shy, very shy boy” and one who went to pieces when tasked with delivering a report as swimming captain in front of his primary school.
“I remember standing up for the first time and I thought to myself ‘I can do this!’.
“But I was like ‘G-g-g-g-o-o-o-d-d-d m-m-m-m-o-o-o-o-r-r-r-r-n-n-n-n morn, morning,’ – I just crumbled.
“It took me a while to get better. I wasn’t so shy as to not speak to people – if they spoke to me I would speak back – but I wouldn’t lead conversations.”
His prowess meant he would race boys at least two years his senior meaning Chad was constantly the youngest in his training group.
Always the junior and shy to boot, did the water offer any protection?
“I had to try and get used to being the youngest in the group, that was how it had always been.
“When I made the senior Olympic squad I was only 14, 15 and I was training with all the Olympians and world champions.
“I was always the youngest: I guess I was a little bit intimidated.
“I always had to go up (to older age groups) so sure you could say it was a place of refuge because I was always in control of everything I did.
“I could decide how fast I was going to go that day, I didn’t have to rely on anyone else.”
Growing up by the Indian Ocean, Chad joined Durban Surf Lifesaving Club at the age of 11.
However, any thoughts of a sea-racing career were quickly dispelled after he replaced an injured friend in a race in Cape Town.
Chad came 20th. Out of 20.
If he is found in the sea, it will be on a surf board.
“I am a little afraid of the sea to be honest. I am just a bit scared of the big waves, I don’t like to be held under the water.
“It’s big surf in Durban and I feel a lot safer having a board.
“I don’t like to not be in control and in the sea you’re not – you’re not even in control of yourself.”
Instead, the pool has become a second home and a place where he can be found every day.
For Chad, such dedication is imperative or else he loses his feel for the water.
“It is probably one of the most important things.
“It is almost the way that you hold the water, you catch the water.
“When you pull through at the top, the first inch of your hand, and you feel the water, the way you pull it past your body. That is what they mean by feel for the water.
“It’s like when you have a feel for your surroundings – you can pick up from a very young age if someone naturally has a feel for the water and through training it gets better.”
Chad’s potential was identified by teacher Lindsay Manthey at Penzance Primary School who suggested to his father the boy be given professional coaching.
So began the partnership with Hill.
“It’s been great. We have achieved great things together: he has formed me as a swimmer.”
What is the key to their relationship?
“You have to trust your coach, everything else is secondary. If you can trust your coach on what he is giving you and what he is telling you to do, the battle is half won.
“Graham is really good one on one. I think that is what makes him really great.
“We are realistic with one another.
“A lot of coaches, especially in South Africa, have a tendency to give swimmers false hope of where they can go, who they can beat, what they can do.
“Graham was always realistic in goals he set and up until now you can say it has gone according to plan.
“Obviously there are some exceptions: some victories we didn’t expect to happen so soon – maybe the Commonwealths in 2010. Everything otherwise has been spot on.”
While he has had invitations to train in the United States, loyalty, proximity to his family and the success he has already enjoyed with his current set-up means he will not be enticed away.
“There has to be that sense of loyalty. For me there is also the saying ‘don’t fix what’s not broken’.
“The loyalty aspect comes into it but with Graham – why would I want to change a winning formula?”
Chad comes from a close-knit family and is one of four children, with an older sister and brother as well as 15-year-old Jordan, another swimmer who is aiming for the 2020 Olympics.
As many as 60 family and friends are planning to support him at the national championships just as they did at the 2012 Olympic trials when they occupied a quarter of a stand.
He recognises the importance of such backing, saying: “It’s amazing to have that support. You don’t realise how much that actually plays a role until you get older.
“When I was a kid I always took it for granted that my parents were always there watching and now I realise how important it is having them there.”
There were dark days for the family though in March 2010 when his mother Geraldine was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Instantly calling to mind the date of the diagnosis, Chad’s parents kept the news from him for over a fortnight because of the upcoming Commonwealth trials as well as school demands.
“I wasn’t happy they kept it from me but they didn’t want to shift my focus.
“I knew something was up: I didn’t know what it was but when they told me I was just really upset, really upset.
“Thankfully my mum pulled through.”
Geraldine accompanied Chad to the Youth Olympics in Singapore that summer just before chemotherapy.
“It was great because I won my first international gold medal there: she was there in the stands so it was really cool.”
Chad is now involved with cancer awareness campaigns.
Jordan – he of the ‘My Brother the Phelps Slayer’ T-shirt – also trains under Hill and the pair have a close relationship.
“I really hope he can improve and do what he wants to achieve.
“Swimming is such a cruel sport: 100th of a second can make the biggest difference, I know that beating Phelps.
“He has got to decide what he wants to do. It can’t be my dream for him to make the Olympics – it has to be his dream, not anyone else’s.”
Chad’s 2012 Olympic success saw him garner attention more akin to a pop star.
He accompanied Melanie Olhaus to her high school dance prompting even more female attention, notably on Twitter.
And so Chad’s Ladies – Twitter handle @ChadCougars – and the Official Chadettes came into being.
Four of Chad’s Ladies from across the world – and whose only link is an interest in Chad – all flew to support him in Barcelona last year.
Chad says: “Every year for my birthday they send me gifts: usually a T-shirt saying something like Cougar Power or Cougars Love Me. This time it was Cougar Candy.
“They are really cool.”
While such attention is fun, Chad recognises the importance of using his profile in a positive way.
Citing Phelps, Muhammad Ali and Parkin as his inspirations, he says: “I think it’s really important: especially because I know what it feels like to be a fan of someone.
“I guess you could say I have been let down before by some big guys in South Africa – I won’t mention names.
“In South Africa I think we are lacking in role models or inspiration.
“Hopefully with me and Cameron (van der Burgh) winning at the Olympics there is some inspiration for people like my brother or youngsters in South Africa.”