Chad Le Clos re-lives 2012 win over Michael Phelps: ‘It was a crazy moment’
“Michael was my hero. I loved the guy, worshipped the guy. And then I had to beat the guy.”
Le Clos, who recently qualified for his third Olympics in Tokyo 2020, remembers that race like it was yesterday.
“I wouldn't trade that moment” for anything, Le Clos said in Episode 4 of Time Machine, an original series that takes Olympians back to their biggest achievements. “If I could go back right now in a time machine, I would do that. I want to do that – for real.”
“It was a crazy moment. It's something that I'd always dreamt about.” - Chad Le Clos on his 2012 Olympic gold
The gold medal win by Le Clos, who nipped Phelps at the wall, was called one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history. The American was going for his third consecutive Olympic gold in the 200m butterfly, something no male swimmer had done previously. He was also seeking a 15th Olympic gold.
Phelps had not lost in the race – which he called his favourite – for some 10 years until that night in London.
In the episode, Le Clos was joined by 2016 Olympic teammate Calvyn Justus to travel back in time to 2012, as well as South African sports reporter Cindy Poluta.
“It was the biggest upset ever,” said Poluta, who remembered many in South African media ready to declare Phelps the winner. “It was it was so lovely to be proved wrong. It was everything.”
Pre-London: The Youth Olympics and lead-up to 2012
Le Clos was an up-and-coming swimmer ahead of the London Games in 2012, having competed at the inaugural Youth Olympic Games at Singapore 2010, where he won five medals, including a gold.
Having won two golds at the 2010 Commonwealth Games – including in the 200m butterfly – he made an international splash at the world championships in 2011, where he was fifth in the 200m butterfly in a race that Phelps won, and marked the first time the two had gone head-to-head.
Le Clos remembers meeting Phelps at a sponsor commitment in 2012 in Miami, prior to the Games.
“[It was] the first time I actually got to meet him on a personal level,” Le Clos said. “And obviously I didn't think he knew too much about me or my level. I think he just knew this is the boy that made the [worlds] final.”
The Race Itself
Le Clos said that before the final he walked onto the pool deck listening to a special recording of the school chant from Westville Boys High School, where he had attended.
Le Clos – who said he would have settled for bronze – said the game plan was always to stay as close to Phelps as possible and try to beat him at the finish.
“Once you get on the block, I think that there's not much you can think about,” Le Clos said. “You just think about what you want to do; the right strategy. So I was obviously very excited.”
“I don't overthink things when I'm racing, I just race,” he said. “I tend to just race the race, race the people.
"It's about the moment... more than anything, I'm just a racer.” - Chad Le Clos
That instinct helped Le Clos go from third to first in the final 50 metres, his last stroke timed just right as Phelps had to stretch for the wall, Le Clos winning with a time of 1:52.96 to Phelps’ 1:53.01.
Some called Phelps’ reach a mistake in the race.
“Gary Player always said the more you practice the luckier you get,” Le Clos said. “I prepared so much for that moment. And, you know, I do sympathise with that because obviously he and I know that race really haunted him for a while. And just like 2016 a little bit for me, he got back at me. At the end of day it's all sports.
“It's just the greatest moment ever for me in my life.”
A victory for South Africa
Le Clos – with a gold and three silvers from two Olympic appearances – is South Africa’s most decorated Olympian.
As he continues his drive for more hardware in the pool in Tokyo, he remains a fixture in a country that is otherwise obsessed with rugby, cricket and football.
“[In 2012] you suddenly had kids going, ‘Well, hang on a second, I can win Olympic gold and I don't have to be part of a relay team to do it!’” recalls veteran journalist Cindy Poluta. “It created an excitement around swimming, which doesn't get highly recognised in this country with cricket, rugby, soccer. So it's very hard for individual sports to shine.
“It made the whole Olympics come alive for everybody.” - Reporter Cindy Poluta on Le Clos' 2012 win
Justus, a schoolmate of Le Clos’, was watching from home. He’d make his Olympic debut four years later.
“I'd say a majority of South Africa was at home watching,” he remembered. “And, you know, in the weeks and the months leading after that, seeing the kind of support that he got... it was amazing.
“When you're trying to take down the greatest of all time, you have to have something more than anyone else has. ... I think those closest to Chad knew that he had a real shot. I don't think the world was prepared for it.”
Nor was Le Clos’ father, Bert, whose viral interview on the BBC coined the phrase, “It’s unbelievable!”
Bert made a cameo on Time Machine.
“What I'm most proud of with Chad is the way he treats the small people like me, the way he treats people and I've seen it over the last eight to 10 years,” Bert Le Clos said. “That's where your legacy lies.”
Le Clos can still remember how he felt climbing atop the podium to claim his gold.
“I was floating on the podium.; I was like trying not to cry,” he said. “It was such a surreal moment for me, for my family and for the country. I had really seen [it] happen in my dreams, you know what I mean?
"I love Phelps, one of my heroes [and I’m] like looking down at him. I'm like, ‘Dude, you’re supposed to be up here!' That's what it felt like for me.”