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At 7.52 pm on Tuesday 31 July 2012 in London’s Aquatics Centre, swimming legend Michael Phelps (USA) plunged into the pool in search of a 15th Olympic title and a third consecutive butterfly crown. Right alongside him in Lane 5, Chad Le Clos, a 20-year-old South African, was enjoying simply being part of an Olympic final in the company of his idol, a man he regarded as the “greatest champion of all time”.
It seemed as if it was all going according to plan for Phelps, who led at the 50m, 100m and 150m marks. At the latter point he still maintained a lead of approximately a third of a second and half a second over Takeshi Matsuda (JPN) and Le Clos respectively.
In the home stretch, Le Clos passed Matsuda and continued to dramatically close the gap between himself and Phelps, but with five metres to go the American was still out in front. “I remember those last few strokes,” recalls Le Clos. “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 the race he had, in 1:52.96 to boot – a new African record. In doing so, he pulled off one of the greatest upsets at the Olympic Games London 2012.
That final touch, which proved superior to that of his hero on the day, enabled him to prevail by 5/100ths of a second, and brought to an end Phelps’ decade of invincibility at that distance. An incredulous Le Clos raised his arms in triumph, yelling for joy and smacking the water with his fists.
Three days later, the two protagonists went head to head again, this time in the 100m butterfly. On that occasion, Phelps achieved some semblance of revenge, pipping Le Clos to the gold medal by 21/100ths of a second.
With Phelps seemingly retired from competitive swimming, Le Clos confirmed his new status the following year by emerging victorious from the 100m and 200m butterfly at the FINA World Aquatics Championships in Barcelona (ESP).
During the 2015 Worlds in Kazan (RUS), the Durban native defended his 100m title and picked up a silver medal behind László Cseh (HUN) in the 200m. In between those two gatherings, he secured four goal medals (50m, 100m and 200m butterfly, and 200m freestyle) at the 2014 Short Course Worlds in Doha (QAT).
It has been a hugely successful period for Le Clos, who demonstrated his great potential from the tender age of 10. He burst onto the international stage at the inaugural Summer Youth Olympic Games Singapore 2010, claiming five medals in five races, including a gold in the 200m individual medley.
Today, the South African believes that the sky is the limit. “My goals are to get faster every year, maintain the confidence that I can continue to dominate races, and broaden my repertoire to include freestyle and medley events,” he says. Among his targets is the 200m butterfly world record of 1:51.51, held by Phelps since 2009. Now that the Olympian boasting the most medals in history has come out of retirement, he and Le Clos may find themselves facing one another again in the Olympic Aquatics Stadium in Rio de Janeiro, much to the delight of swimming fans worldwide.