When Michael Phelps stepped onto the starting block in Lane 6 for the 200m butterfly final at London 2012 he had in his sights a 15th Olympic title and a third consecutive gold in the event.
Standing next to him in Lane 5 was a 20-year-old South African by the name of Chad Le Clos, who had already fulfilled a dream by lining up alongside his idol in an Olympic final.
Everything went according to plan for the mighty Phelps in the early stages of the race. Ahead at 50m and 100m, he had stretched his lead out to 0.38 seconds over Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda at the final turn, with Le Clos a further 0.2 seconds further back in third.
Le Clos clawed back some of the deficit but, with just five metres remaining, was still trailing the American. The South African takes up the story:
“I remember touching the wall and not knowing what had happened. I knew I was very close to the gold, but I felt like Phelps had got it still. I just thought to myself: ‘You’re not racing anybody else. You’re racing the greatest finisher of all time’.
I just remember those last two strokes when I put my head down: ‘I have to hit this perfectly. I have to hit this spot on’. I just remember how perfect it actually was. I remember just looking at the wall and I was like: ‘No way. Come on. I could never have won this race’.”
In stopping the clock at 1:52.96 – an African record – Le Clos had done just enough to spring one of the biggest shocks of London 2012.
With Phelps getting his timing wrong at the wall, the outsider ducked past him at the death, getting the touch to win by 0.05 seconds and bring to an end the American’s ten-year domination of the event.
Phelps would have his revenge three days later in the final of the 100m butterfly, taking gold by 0.21 seconds from Le Clos.
Following Phelps’ retirement from competitive swimming, Le Clos underlined his new-found supremacy by taking the world 100m and 200m butterfly titles in Barcelona the following year.
It was the culmination of a meteoric rise for the Durban swimmer, who began competing at the age of 10 and burst onto the international scene in 2010, at the inaugural Summer Youth Olympic Games in Singapore, where he won five medals in the five events he entered, including gold in the 200m medley.
After having beeen an ambassador of the Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games, he continues to set himself new objectives.
In addition to targeting Phelps’s 200m butterfly record of 1:51.51, which has stood since 2009, he also hopes to emulate his American idol by becoming the dominant force in other styles:
“[My aim is] to get faster every year, be sure in myself that I can continue to dominate the events I dominate, and extend my range to freestyle and medley races,” he reveals.