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South Africa’s most decorated Olympian of all time with four medals, Chad Le Clos scored one of the sensations of London 2012, defeating the great Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly. Four years later, he shared silver with the American great in a stunning 100m butterfly final in Rio.
Born in Durban on 12 April 1992, Chad Le Clos took up swimming at an early age, entered his first competition when he was 10 and forced his way into South Africa’s senior national team at 14.
The highly promising teenager showed his potential in 2010, winning five medals at the Summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, another five at the Commonwealth Games in New Delhi, and a 200m butterfly gold at the FINA World Short Course Championships in Dubai, all this while he was still at school.
In November 2011 he landed his maiden FINA Swimming World Cup title, becoming the third South African to win the accolade after Ryk Neethling and Cameron van der Burgh. Le Clos then posted a number of qualification times at the South African trials for London 2012, upstaging reigning 50m breaststroke world champion Van der Burgh in the process.
Le Clos ultimately won his way through to the final of the 200m butterfly at London 2012, where he lined up right alongside swimming icon Michael Phelps (USA), the man he regarded as quite simply the “greatest champion of all time”.
Heading in search of a 15th Olympic title and a third consecutive victory in the event, Phelps led at the 50m, 100m and 150m marks, by which time his advantage over the 20-year-old South African had grown to 0.58 seconds.
Lying third behind Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda at the final turn, Le Clos passed him on the home stretch and then dramatically closed the gap on Phelps. With five metres to go, however, the American was still out in front.
“I remember those last few strokes,” said Le Clos, recalling the thrilling denouement as he reeled in the American great. “I told myself that I had to make sure I touched the wall perfectly, and that’s what I did. That said, I had no idea what had happened at first. I knew I was close to snatching a gold medal, but I thought that Phelps had still managed to get the win. I thought to myself, ‘You haven’t actually gone and won the race, have you?’”
But win it he had, posting a new African record of 1:52.96 to shade Phelps by 0.05 seconds and pull off one of the greatest upsets of London 2012. Scarcely able to believe he had ended the American’s decade-long reign in the event, an incredulous Le Clos raised his arms in triumph, yelling for joy and smacking the water with his fists.
When the two met again in the 100m butterfly final three days later, Phelps gained a measure of revenge, pipping Le Clos to the gold medal by 0.21 seconds. “When I was 12 I looked on Phelps as a hero, as a god almost,” said the South African, looking back on his memorable 200m triumph. “I never thought I’d ever be in a position to beat. My coach Graham Hill and I call it destiny.”
When Phelps then retired from competitive swimming, albeit temporarily, Le Clos built on his Olympic breakthrough by completing a 100m/200m butterfly double at the 2013 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona (ESP) and winning a second Swimming World Cup title that same year.
A third would follow in 2014, a year that also saw the Durban native secure four golds (50m, 100m and 200m butterfly, and 200m freestyle) at the FINA World Short Course Championships in Doha (QAT) and enthusiastically take on the role of Summer Youth Olympic Games ambassador at Nanjing 2014.
Le Clos then successfully defended his 100m title at the 2015 Worlds in Kazan (RUS), where he also picked up a silver medal behind László Cseh (HUN) in the 200m. By this time, Phelps had come out of retirement, his sights set on yet more gold at Rio 2016, where he and Le Clos would take part in yet another final for the ages.
Le Clos’ first podium in Rio came in the 200m freestyle, where he won silver. Leading at the turn, he was overhauled on the home stretch by China’s Sun Yang, who took gold by a margin of 0.55 seconds. However, there was disappointment in the following day’s 200m butterfly final; coming home fourth, Le Clos gave up his Olympic crown to the returning Phelps.
His second Olympics ended with another memorable tussle involving Phelps, this time in the 100m butterfly final. While the gold went to Singaporean youngster Joseph Schooling in a time of 50.39, Le Clos, Phelps and Cseh all touched home in a time of 50.41 for a remarkable three-way split of silver.