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London - A superstar is born. Chad le Clos sagged over the lane ropes, his head in his hands almost in disbelief after he had won gold in the 200m butterfly.
He had beaten Michael Phelps, perhaps the greatest Olympic swimmer yet. He had become an Olympic champion. Nothing would be the same again.
It was the shock of the Olympic competition, a final 50m in which Le Clos was all fury and fire, coming back from third place after 150 metres to touch the wall just five hundredths of a second before Phelps, who was second.
His time was one minute 52.96 seconds, a new South African and African record, but time meant nothing on Tuesday night. This was the win of a South African great in the making.
“It’s a dream come true. Michael Phelps was an idol to me. He still is, I still can’t believe I beat him in the final,” Le Clos said after having swum in his second final, the 4 x 200m freestyle relay, on Tuesday night.
“It’s something that I’ve lived over and over in my head like a million times and I’m still so shocked that I won. I can’t believe it. I just can’t believe it.”
It was South Africa’s second medal of the Olympics. In Beijing, Khotso Mokoena returned with SA’s lone medal for his efforts in the long jump.
For his win Le Clos has earned R400 000, the incentive offered by the SA Sports Confederation & Olympic Committee for gold medals. But the money mattered little next to an Olympic gold. In the stands, his mother, father and brother watched Le Clos.
“Awesome, they’ve been my biggest fans since I was a little boy, making my first national team,” Le Clos said.
“I remember them crying when I won my first junior national medal, it wasn’t even a medal, it was a ribbon.
“I’ve known I wanted to be a swimmer ever since 2004, when I saw Phelps win six golds.
“I wanted to race in the Olympic Games and be like him.”
Two years ago, Swimming World TV, an American show, described Le Clos as a “young Michael Phelps”. He would, it said, make a “massive international breakthrough”.
Six months later, and Le Clos, then 18 and in Grade 12 in Durban, won the 200m butterfly at the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. The first steps had been taken. Le Clos brought home four medals from Delhi – two golds, a silver and a bronze.
Since then he has added to his collection of medals and admirers.
Le Clos is coached in Durban by Graham Hill, who is with the South Africans in London as head coach. “Without being too biased, he’s really good,” Hill said at the Olympic Village last week.
“In all the years I’ve been around and swimmers I’ve seen, Chad has all the tools. He’s got the speed, he’s got the endurance, he’s got all the skills at starts and turns, as we saw in the (Fina/Arena Swimming) World Cup.
“He’s still young and it’s his first Games, so we’ll see now. We don’t need to judge him too harshly on these Games. He’s coming up against three of the greatest swimmers of all time in his events.
“Our aim is for him to make the finals and see where he goes from there.”
Le Clos went from the Olympic pool into the arms and hearts of millions of South Africans.
His potential has been proved, his heart for the fight not questioned. A star was born last night, one that may burn brightest in Rio de Janeiro four years from now.