A YEAR ago, Chad le Clos beat his idol Michael Phelps in the 200 metres butterfly at the London Olympics.
Now, with Phelps retired, the South African has to find new inspiration at the World Championships in Barcelona, where the traditional pool events begin on Sunday.
“I guess I’m going to miss him a little bit,” Le Clos said yesterday. “My whole swimming career was about training to beat Michael Phelps in any race I possibly could. Last year was huge for me. Nobody expected me to win that race and now going into world championships is different for me – having the target for me on my back. I just have to prepare like I do for each race.”
And while he won’t be competing, Phelps will be in Barcelona to represent his sponsors and be honoured by swimming governing body Fina. When the worlds end, Phelps will be getting back in the water with Le Clos. Not to race, though. Phelps is heading down to South Africa to go shark-cage diving with Le Clos.
“I’m actually quite scared of sharks,” Le Clos said. “I don’t know how he convinced me.” The pair could have a different type of reunion at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, if the speculation about the American’s return turns out to be true. “I don’t think it’s for me to say if he’s going to come back or not. That’s up to Michael Phelps,” Le Clos said. “But if he does come back I don’t think it will change much in my preparations. But I have spoken to him.”
The 21-year-old Le Clos chose his words carefully, something he has learned to do well over the past year, since becoming one of the biggest stars in South Africa. “I wasn’t used to all these cameras getting stuck in my face,” he said about his return home following his success in London, when he also took silver behind Phelps in the 100m fly. “I feel like Justin Bieber sometimes.” All the post-Olympic attention cut into Le Clos’ training time, which led to a right shoulder injury late last year. “It happened after a break trying to come back too early,” he said. “We have a lot of juniors coming through and they were all beating me and I don’t like to lose, so sometimes I just get a bit silly. I train too hard and then I get injured.”
In all, Le Clos missed about three months of training before resuming at full speed in February. “I don’t make any excuses now,” he said, adding that he didn’t require surgery. “I’m feeling good.”
Still, it won’t be easy inside the Palau Sant Jordi arena. That became evident in June when Le Clos trained with 20-year-old Bence Biczo and the veteran Laszlo Cseh in Hungary.
At the Hungarian nationals, Biczo won the 200m fly ahead of Le Clos, with Cseh third.
And Le Clos will also have to deal with American standout Ryan Lochte, who has dropped the 400m individual medley and added the 100m fly to his programme.
As for the 50m fly, Le Clos doesn’t have big expectations. “I’ve never been a sprinter,” he said. “If I can make the final that will be a great race for me.”