South African swimming sensation Chad le Clos still has plenty he wants to achieve in the pool in the coming years, but has also recently embarked on a “passion project” he hopes will create a new generation of Olympic gold medallists.
Chad le Clos recently returned from the Commonwealth Games on Australia’s Gold Coast, where he grew his legend further with three gold medals, a silver and a bronze.
He has now set his sights on the World Swimming Championships in Hangzhou, China, in December, as well as the next Olympics in Tokyo in two years’ time, where he expects to face greater challengers as a new group of young swimmers emerge.
The 26-year-old’s favorite medal from the Commonwealth Games did not come from his individual haul of golds, but was rather the bronze he collected in the 4 x 100-meter medley race, which gives an insight into his psyche. Swimming is mostly an individual sport, but Le Clos is clearly a team player.
“Truthfully, the best race for me was the relay on the final day when we got the bronze,” Le Clos tells FORBES AFRICA.
“We had guys that weren’t meant to be swimming in those events, they were specialists in other disciplines.
“Earlier, we had finished sixth or seventh [in the heats], so to touch in third ahead of Scotland in the final was amazing and it felt like a gold medal to me.
“It was really tough, but the guys put it together when it mattered and that makes it really special.”
Le Clos confirmed his status as South Africa’s premier athlete in the pool with golds in the 50-, 100- and 200-meter butterfly events, as well as a silver in the 100-meter freestyle.
“The butterfly treble was great because nobody has done that before and it was a big goal of mine. To win my third consecutive 200-meter butterfly gold was also very special as it means I have now been Commonwealth Games champion for eight years, which is a big achievement.
“So from a personal point of view I was happy with my individual achievements, though I also believe that we should have medalled in the 100-meter freestyle relay.
“But it was maybe not the team that should have gone, none were specialist 100-meter freestyle swimmers and although everybody did great times, it wasn’t enough, which was a big disappointment for me.”
Le Clos is already South Africa’s most decorated Olympian with a gold and three silver medals, a haul he is looking to add to in Tokyo, something he says will be increasingly difficult with a new generation of swimmers coming through.
“You can see them emerging and wonder how good they will be in two years,” Le Clos says.
“There is an 18-year-old Hungarian boy [Kristóf Milák] who is already just one second off the world record in the 200-meter butterfly. I think I will have to swim pretty close to the world record to get gold.
“But it is also exciting for world swimming and the sport. You need new stars and as an individual that pushes you to work even harder. It is a major source of motivation.”
Le Clos is no veteran, but he has already been in the South African swimming team for close to 10 years and is thinking of life outside of the pool with the recent launch of the Chad Le Clos Academy in his adopted hometown of Cape Town.
His dream is to have academies all over South Africa, as well as internationally, with five more planned to open before the end of the year.
“It has been a passion project of mine for the last five years and finally we have managed to get it off the ground,” he says.
“We want to start with kids as young as five years old, initially showing them how fun swimming can be before later on developing individual programs that will help them achieve their swimming goals.
“And those goals don’t have to be to make it to the Olympics. It might just be to swim for their school, or make it to the national finals. But obviously it is a dream of mine to develop boys and girls to swim for South Africa at the Olympics, that would just be unbelievable and something I would cherish for the rest of my life.”
Le Clos has helped develop the swimming program for the Academy, the first of which is based in Claremont in the Mother City, which he says is very different to how kids are traditionally trained in South Africa.
“I have always been of the opinion that we push kids too hard in their early years. So by the age of 17 or 18 they are burned out in the pool, or they have left the sport before then because it is all too much.
“The example I always use is if you have two boys, both aged 11, one is a swimmer and the other a rugby player.
“Traditionally, that swimmer would be in the pool doing 65 kilometers a week, the same training schedule as myself, Cameron van der Burgh or Tatjana Schoenmaker would do when we train for the Olympics.
“But you would not ask that 11-year-old rugby player to train against The Beast [Springbok Tendai Mtawarira], it would be madness.
“So it is all about pacing the training correctly to ensure that our swimmers peak at the right age and continue to have the love for swimming. They must want to get into that pool, not see it as a chore and something they dread.
“We also teach the kids respect for the sport and respect for their coaches, no matter what background they come from or how talented they are. That is very important to me.”
The ongoing drought in Cape Town has scuppered plans for a purpose-built facility for the first academy, but that will come, according to Le Clos.
“There has been an amazing response so far and it is the program that we will franchise out. Hopefully we will have another five opening in the next six months all over South Africa.
“We will be training the coaches according to our program, and the hope is to take it international, but for now we just want to have it running smoothly in South Africa first.”
Le Clos believes he has another “six or eight” years left to compete in the pool and hopes one day to perhaps have one of his pupils as a national teammate.
“I said to my Dad [Bert] the other day how it would be a dream of mine to walk a kid to the Olympics. It would mean so much to me. Maybe that will happen while I am still on the national team, and we swim together, wouldn’t that be something?”
– Nick Said