Chad Le Clos
– Interview by Jake Bambrough, Qatar
They say you shouldn’t meet your heroes, but Chad Le Clos went one better and beat his when he burst onto the Olympic scene at the London 2012 Games. The young South African swimmer claimed gold in the 200m butterfly in dramatic fashion, coming from third in the final 50 metres to edge out history’s most successful Olympian and his own childhood idol Michael Phelps.
Entertaining television interviews with his father, Bert, made Le Clos an instant hit with spectators, but in the pool he is all business with an impressive pedigree of Commonwealth, World Championship and Youth Olympic golds all by the time he turned 20 years old.
The seven medals he won at this year’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow are a clear testament to his ability and an indication of his goals for the Rio 2016 Olympic Games.
Potentially swimming’s next biggest star, here he tells us about living his Olympic dream, split-second advantages and how one race can take years of planning.
What is your normal training load?
About nine or 10 sessions a week swimming, the days vary but it is usually every afternoon and most mornings. It’s variable, on a normal week it’s Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Sundays I usually have off, but it depends on my coach’s mood, so it’s really anything from 60 to 90 Km of swimming per week.
What sort of injuries do swimmers commonly experience?
I can only speak for myself; I have been a bit unlucky in the last few years. In 2009 I tore both my adductors, I was a breaststroke swimmer, so that kept me out for a while and I’m still trying to get back to where I was with the breaststroke.
But I think the most common injury is the rotator cuff in the shoulder, the majority of the injuries are overuse.
Do you think there is any particular stroke which carries a higher risk of injury?
Probably my stroke, butterfly, it puts a lot of stress on the shoulders.
What injuries have you had and which was the worst to recover from?
The groin injury was probably the worst, that kept me out for the longest period of time.
At the end of 2012 I was in Doha and I started getting a small problem in my rotator cuff, I didn’t complete the right rehab, which was my fault, and I ended up sitting out for about 6 weeks on and off.
At the beginning of this year I had a small problem in my Achilles, but it only kept me out for two weeks.
What sort of relationship do you have with your doctor?
We are pretty close, I see the medical team on a weekly basis, but they’re available twenty-four seven, should I need them.
What skills do you think a doctor needs to work well with elite swimmers?
The most important thing is that you have to understand the swimmer, that’s really important to me. It’s the same as any relationship with your coach, or physios. I’ve been with my doctor, since 2010, we have built a relationship and he knows what I need and how to tackle any problems.
Do you follow a nutrition strategy?
Not really, I don’t follow a strict regime but I eat well, my Dad always prepares good, fresh food for me.
With the margins being so fine in swimming these days, how important is sports science in gaining that extra edge?
It’s very important and that is part of the reason we come to places like Aspetar. If we can find an extra one per cent, that could make all the difference. When you get to this level you are looking for split seconds; that could be the difference between winning and losing, so we are just trying find something extra every year. I’m still young and there’s still a lot my coach Graham and I want to achieve. There’s two years until the Olympics so anything that can help us is going to make us really happy.
You were a promising footballer when you were younger, when did you make the choice to concentrate on swimming and why did you choose swimming over football?
I played football from a really young age and my family is very much into football. I was the first swimmer in a big family and when I first came home and told my aunts and uncles I was going to start swimming they were really surprised.
I made the decision to concentrate on swimming in high school when I was about 13 or 14. I started really focusing and I stopped playing football around that age. I would still kick a ball about in the garden with my brother but I always hoped from a very young age that it would be swimming which would take me to where I am now.
Bill Furniss, who coached Rebecca Adlington to 4 Olympic medals, said he believes success in swimming is only 10% talent and 90% hard work, would you agree that’s what being a swimmer is about?
I like to think it’s a mixture of talent and hard work, but you definitely have to want it to be the best, you have to want to get in the pool.
Your coach, Graham Hill, told you before the Olympic final in London that it was your last chance to beat Phelps in the 200m butterfly. How did you prepare mentally for that race, and was it any different to how you normally prepare?
It was different, of course, I was ten times more excited because Michael Phelps was in the race. Having followed him and idolised him my whole life was something which gave me the extra edge because I just wanted to beat him.
When Graham said that to me it was funny, because not a lot of swimmers would expect their coach to say that but I think it really spurred me on. It was like the last 50m were the last 50 of my life. By 150m we had a medal, I was in third place and I didn’t think anyone was going to overtake me, so when I turned into the last length I saw it as either I win or I lose.
You have described that race as a “David and Goliath battle” Phelps inspired you to start swimming butterfly, how did it feel to beat him to the Olympic gold?
I remember watching Phelps in the butterfly at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing with my parents and saying afterwards ‘I want to be in that final in four years and I want to race him’. It’s surreal because in 2004 I was 11 or 12 years old watching this guy win six gold medals at the Olympic Games in Athens and eight years later I beat him in his favourite event. It’s very difficult to describe that feeling in words.
It wasn’t a race where we just decided we would go for it, Graham and I planned the race over a period of years. The sets Graham made me do in training were specifically designed for that one race. The race that you saw, we planned for, we planned to race it exactly like that, which is why it was so overwhelming to win.
Graham predicted I would win 9 or 10 days before the final. He told me if I was going to beat Phelps I would have to sit half a stroke off him and come in over the top of him. I couldn’t believe it, I said to him ‘you want me to do that to who? Michael Phelps?’, but it came off perfectly.
With multiple events, each with heats and finals, swimmers are often required to race more than once a day. Can you take us through how you recover between two races on the same day?
If we have ice baths available at the competition I will have an ice bath and then sleep – I like to have a little sleep between races. But you just have to be ready to go, it’s as if you have to switch yourself on before a big race, you need to say ‘ok, I’m here’. I think a lot of athletes have that trigger point when it goes from being a heat or a semi-final to a final, you have to be able to make that switch.
You’re 22 and you have many years as a swimmer ahead of you, what are your goals for the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro?
This year is a bit of an experimental year for us, which is why we came to Doha to try new types of training. At Rio I would like to swim both the butterfly races (200m and 400m) and depending on how my medley is in two years’ time I would like to try to challenge in that. I want to win medals in Brazil, hopefully gold medals, so I want to make sure I’m in the best shape possible; both injury and sickness taken care of I think I can do well there.
What sacrifices have you had to make to get to the top of your game in swimming?
There are sacrifices when you are younger, particularly in your teens in high school when everybody is going out on the weekends. I would go out every now and again and enjoy myself, but I suppose I missed a lot of that. I never used to use my phone during the week when I was training, I liked to keep my mind fresh. I didn’t want to be talking to people who might get me down; I like to surround myself with positive people.
As a swimmer you spend quite a lot of time with your head underwater, looking at the bottom of the pool. Can you tell us about the psychology of a swimmer to train in that environment of sensory deprivation?
I’m not going to lie, it’s hard, a lot of times you wake up in the morning and you don’t want to go to training because it is boring sometimes, always being in the same environment. Being here at Aspetar is really nice because the facilities are world class, not everywhere has facilities like that. At the end of the day, what drives me is my goals, if I was swimming for fun I would swim two or three kilometers, I wouldn’t swim the mileage that we do. It comes down to what you want to achieve in the sport.
You are doing hypoxic training for the first time here at Aspetar, is this a training method which is becoming more common among swimmers?
I think so. To be honest, I’m not sure what sort of training everyone else does. But it’s something we have to try out, I suppose it depends how you swim, and has different effects for different people.
And how are you finding it?
It’s going really well, I’m really enjoying it, as I said the facilities are great and it’s good to have the elite South African squad here together and training hard.
Image by Doha Stadium