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LONDON: There was a split-second of silence and confusion as two men at very different stages of their Olympic careers touched the almost simultaneously.
Then a roar so loud it could be heard right back to Durban: Chad le Clos, Olympic champion, gold medallist.
Le Clos leapt into the air, his arms spread and, in a second, all the pain was forgotten and his lungs filled with a breath of victory.
It was one of the greatest wins ever, and one of the closest. Michael Phelps, the legend of the pool he had bested, won his 18th Olympic medal, but it was silver and not the gold he had hoped for.
Le Clos won by 0.05sec. Phelps won the 100m butterfly by 0.01sec over Serbia’s Milorad Cavic in 2008.
“I’m as shocked as you are,” said Le Clos when asked if thought he could win. “I can tell you that I’ve swum that final 50 metres in my head a million times. I’ve watched all his races since the 2000 Olympics and I can always remember how he always finished strongly. I felt like him. Swimming that last 50, I felt like I was Phelps. I remember looking at him and he just said ‘congratulations and enjoy the moment’. He’s such a legend. It’s a great honour.
“I still felt like I was dreaming (when I was standing on that top step and looking down at Phelps). I couldn’t believe it. I didn’t think it would actually happen in this lifetime. I was just so proud to have been there and lived my dream.”
It added another gold medal to that of Cameron van der Burgh, who had won the 100m breaststroke on Sunday night, breaking the world record to do so. Van der Burgh is 24, Le Clos is 20. South African swimming could be in for a golden period.
Le Clos floated in the butterfly and then immediately got ready to sting in the free last night after what he described as the “greatest night of my life”.
He had swum in the morning semi-final of the 4x200m freestyle while Phelps had rested. It hardly seemed to have bothered him as he thundered home in the final 30 metres of the race.
Le Clos had started hard, touching the wall at 50m in second behind Phelps. He was still second after 100m, but was then overtaken by Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda as they turned at 150m.
He has had a habit of looking left and right when he heads down the final lap. Last night, he looked straight ahead at a wall that promised a new beginning.
Swimming South Africa are hoping that the Olympic gold medals won thus far will encourage corporate investors and other benefactors to provide them with the resources to continue their programme to produce more champions.
The barren year of 2008 was the proverbial kick up the backside all concerned needed to institute a long-term plan that resulted in the joy of Sunday night when a 24-year old from Pretoria broke the 100m breaststroke world record.
It is estimated that Van der Burgh was supported to the tune of R1million in total for training in his build-up to London. It was a good investment and, on the face of it, rather cost-effective.
“I think it makes it all worthwhile,” said Jace Naidoo, president of SSA. “For me, what it really shows is that we have talent in the country and that, with the right kind of support, we can deliver on the results for the country.
“Yes, it’s hard work and Cameron was very focused, but I think the support makes the difference. The plan can work. We just need to find the resources to support that plan.
“Hopefully, after the performances by Cameron and some of the other swimmers, people will see that it’s a worthwhile investment. We’re not asking for a donation. We’re asking the country to invest in our swimmers because they can do the country proud.
“Towards the end of 2008, we started putting the plan together, and when Sascoc called for the Opex criteria, we called on each athlete and, together with high-performance in swimming, we discussed what their requirements were in terms of preparations for competitions, etc. And we’ve stuck with that plan. There were lots of people who didn’t believe it could work.”
“For me, the most important thing is the belief that we can develop world-class athletes in the country,” said Naidoo.
“That was always a concern, whether we could do it with all the constraints that we had. I think what this shows is that it can be done. With the right level of support, I’m sure we can unearth a lot more Camerons in the country.”
And a lot more Chads, too.
Meanwhile, four years after he climbed to the top of Olympic achievement, Phelps took the last step he needed to reach the absolute peak.
The greatest swimmer of all time became the most decorated Olympian of all time when he won a record 19th Olympic medal yesterday.
With a little help from his American friends, Phelps won his first gold medal in London in the 4x200m freestyle less than an hour after a his shock defeat in the 200 butterfly, an event he has dominated for over a decade.
The record Phelps broke was held by Soviet gymnast Larisa Latynina, who won the last of her 18 Olympic medal at Tokyo in 1964.
“I would have liked a better outcome in the 200 fly. Obviously it was my last one and I would have liked to win, but ... it wasn’t a terrible time,” Phelps said. “I thank those guys for helping me get to this moment ... I just wanted to hold on. I thank them for allowing me this moment.”
Chinese teenager Ye Shiwen survived a late challenge from Alicia Coutts to win the 200m individual medley final to collect her second gold medal at the London Olympics.