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Chad le Clos: "I put on a facade of being happy as I thought that talking about mental health made me look weak"

In an Olympics.com exclusive for World Mental Health Day 2022, the South African swimming star reveals how his mental health spiraled out of control, the military therapy technique that helped him rediscover 'old Chad', and why he feels more connected to Michael Phelps than ever.

8 min By Andrew Binner | Created 10 October 2022
Chad le clos
(Picture by 2019 Getty Images)

Chad le Clos used to think that he had unbreakable mental strength, and so did everyone else.

It all started at the London 2012 Olympics, where the South African upset significant odds to beat the greatest swimmer of all time, Michael Phelps, in the 200m butterfly final. He also picked up silver in the 100m butterfly.

Over the next eight years, Le Clos built a reputation as one of the most consistent performers in the world, breaking world records, winning two more Olympic silvers at Rio 2016, and dominating world championships with his ultra-competitive mindset.

But in 2020, an incident that he isn’t yet ready to talk about occurred, that caused him to spiral into a deep depression ahead of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

”To the normal person I have a great life, right? But they couldn’t see the struggles. I even had close friends that didn’t take my problems seriously,” Le Clos told Olympics.com for World Mental Health Day 2022.

_“_It was hard for me because I'm really proud of my achievements and being strong mentally. I put on a facade of being happy as I thought that talking about mental health made me look weak.

“It was a terrible cliche that had to change.”

In recognition of World Mental Health Day on 10 October, Olympics.com sat down with Le Clos to hear about his darkest day, the journey back to happiness, and why he feels more connected to Phelps than ever.

Overcoming the mental health stigma

Admitting that he was struggling was difficult for Le Clos.

After so many years of being revered as a real-life superhero, the Durban-born athlete initially tried to deny to himself that anything was wrong.

Then there was the stigma around the subject to overcome. Males, and particularly African males, culturally didn’t speak about mental health.

“As a South African man, talking about our feelings is not traditionally what we do. We don't speak about anything to do with not being a tough guy,” Le Clos continued.

“You roll your sleeves up, and if you get cuts, you rub dirt on them. That's the kind of mentality we come from here.

“It's a big problem, because society today has different hurdles to overcome, like social media, which wasn’t around 20, 25 years ago.

“The world is so small now, everyone can share their opinions with and about you, and it’s sometimes difficult to keep up with your own thoughts.”

Chad le Clos 'felt numb' as he walked out for the 200m butterfly Olympic final at Tokyo 2020 due to his mental health struggles.
Chad le Clos 'felt numb' as he walked out for the 200m butterfly Olympic final at Tokyo 2020 due to his mental health struggles. (2021 Getty Images)

“I hadn't slept properly for six, seven months... I was putting on a brave face in Tokyo." - Chad le Clos to Olympics.com

As with most people, the Covid-19 pandemic was unsettling for Le Clos.

But unlike many of his top-tier rivals in the pool, he was forced to change countries several times, had no contact with his coach, and lost his routine.

Then, just months before the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics began at the start of 2021, a specific incident that the four-time Olympic medallist described as ‘worse than my parents having cancer’ triggered his mental health decline.

_“_I wasn't the same person from the day that the incident happened,” he said.

“I hadn't slept properly for six, seven months as it was always in the back of my mind no matter how much I trained. I was really putting on a brave face in Tokyo.

“I knew there was a problem when I walked out for an Olympic final and I was so numb from the past seven months that I couldn’t really feel any emotion. It was almost like you could cut me, I wouldn't feel it.”

Chad le Clos: Hitting rock bottom

Unsurprisingly, Le Clos didn’t medal in Japan.

By now, his friends and family could see he wasn’t himself, and asked him to go and speak to a psychologist about it.

He refused for months, thinking it would go away if he carried on competing.

Then one night while he was competing in Europe, he hit his lowest point.

_“_I just remember calling my ex-girlfriend from my hotel room and just crying for no reason,” he revealed.

“Suicide is not who I am as a person and I’d never do it, but there was a moment on November 10th last year. It was cold in Eindhoven and I was just sad; I couldn’t even play Playstation which is my favourite thing while in a COVID bubble.

“Then there was a moment when I was in the shower and I suddenly thought, “If I died it might not be the worst thing”. Then I was like, “Woah, no, no, no. This is not good..

“That's when I realised I was absolutely rock bottom. Absolutely rock bottom. From there I got help and I started speaking regularly to someone.”

After three months of therapy, the ‘old Chad’ began to return at the start of 2022.

Through speaking to a psychologist, the 30-year-old was able to get his issues off his chest.

“I did a therapy called EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitisation and Reprocessing) that soldiers do when they've gone through post traumatic stress and it really helped me to process stuff.

“That's when I started seeing myself come out of this place and I started feeling like the old Chad again."

Breaking away from results-driven happiness

Le Clos was also made aware for the first time that there was another core reason behind the roller-coaster of emotions he was feeling.

“[The psychologist] said that my happiness is premeditated by my results in the pool. Let that sink in for a second because it’s actually horrendous.

_“_I'm blessed with unbelievable parents, unbelievable siblings, a great family. But I still can't shake the fact that there's something inside of me that still feels like nothing else will do but winning.

“An example of this is the Rio 2016 Olympics. I’ll never forget a conversation I had with my sister after losing to Phelps in the 200 butterfly. I went to the village and my whole family were there. I just burst into tears and I was so empty.

“My sister grabbed me and said, 'you don’t know what Phelps has gone through. He’s had mental issues and considered suicide. He needed that win and we’re happy for him. You have a family and you’re our hero forever'. She was saying something I couldn't comprehend at the time and I just thought she didn’t get it. After the highs of beating Phelps at London 2012, I felt like an absolute failure.

“But now I see that what she was saying was so beautiful as I’ve realised how right she was. I won two silver medals which is amazing looking back on it."

Connecting with Michael Phelps and Tyson Fury

The comparison to Phelps is an important one.

When the 23-time Olympic champion went public with his mental health issues in 2015, Le Clos was too young to fully comprehend what his American rival was going through.

_“_I was a kid. I was 21 years old and I didn’t understand it,” Le Clos said.

“I honestly thought that he was just looking for attention. I thought, “This guy’s the greatest of all time, how can you be struggling? You have all the money in the world, you have the fame, you drive nice cars, how can that happen to you?

“Then when my own struggles hit me and I was like, “Oh my God, I feel really bad.

“So I'm very sympathetic now towards Michael, towards everyone. Everyone thought we had this beef but I'd love to sit down and chat with him after all these years as the reality is that he’s always been a hero to me. I love the guy.”

In addition to Phelps, Le Clos also found inspiration from another sport - boxing.

“Tyson Fury has been another big motivation for me. He said: 'I'm the heavyweight champion of the world, I'm the baddest man on the planet'. Like Michael Phelps is the baddest man in swimming.

“It just shows that if they can suffer with mental health than anybody can. It's very important that we speak out and people get the right help that they need.”

Michael Phelps (L), Chad le Clos (C) and Laszlo Cseh (R) celebrate winning joint silver in the 100m Butterfly at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Michael Phelps (L), Chad le Clos (C) and Laszlo Cseh (R) celebrate winning joint silver in the 100m Butterfly at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games. (2016 Getty Images)

The results of Le Clos’ time with psychologists is evident from his swimming results too.

At the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, he took silver in the 200m butterfly to become the joint-most successful Commonwealth Games athlete ever with 18 medals.

“My advice to anyone who recognises those symptoms of bad mental health, just please speak to a professional right away,” he told us.

“I wish I'd done it earlier. I think if I'd done it in January, I think last year would have been a lot different in terms of my happiness, and results too.

_“_It's actually a beautiful saying, 'you never really forget stuff that happens to you in life, but you learn to deal with it'.”

Africa’s best ever swimmer is now focussing on training with his new group in Frankfurt and maintaining his psychology sessions, in hope of putting on a show worthy of ‘old Chad’ at the Paris 2024 Olympics.

“You already know that the goal is gold,” he said with a smile.

“But let’s go baby steps, I’m just very excited.

“Everyone's written me off already, so it's perfect. I have no expectations from anyone, but we’ll see.”

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