Le Clos expected to carry Team SAComment on this story
Johannesburg – Olympic golden boy Chad le Clos carries South Africa's medal hope at swimming's world championships, which started on Sunday, after the Rainbow Nation's swim team solved its cash concerns.
Reports earlier this year suggested Le Clos and his teammates, including Olympic 100m breast-stroke champion Cameron van der Burgh, would have to foot flight and accommodation bills to compete in Barcelona.
But while the national swimming body is cash strapped after losing its main sponsor, the government, plus national Olympic confederation Sascoc and world swimming body Fina have boosted the national association's coffers.
A combined figure of R4.2 million has reportedly been raised, but part of it is earmarked for development programmes.
With costs concerns settled, the 21-year-old Le Cos is focused on matching his London 2012 form which saw him win 200m gold and 100m silver in the butterfly.
He achieved the seemingly impossible in the London pool by pipping childhood hero and American superstar Michael Phelps for the 200-metre Olympics butterfly gold.
Now-retired, Phelps reversed the placings in the 100m final, but collecting gold and silver was a stunning achievement by the South African.
Before London, South African swimming supporters believed Durban-born Le Clos was an Olympics medal prospect – for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games.
A tall, clean-cut figure, Le Clos was feted on his return home and became the instantly recognisable face of South African swimming.
It was a wonderful, if short-lived boost for the sport in a country where football, rugby union and cricket rule the media and sponsorship money.
“Barcelona will be weird because all of us have been chasing Phelps and there could be extra pressure on me now as an Olympic champion,” confessed Le Clos.
“It is all about getting to the final – then times and reputations fall by the wayside.
“I really want to win the 200m butterfly, hope to be up there in the 100m butterfly final, and it would be great to make the 50m butterfly final.”
Apart from Le Clos, London Games 100-metre breaststroke gold medalist van der Burgh, 25, is another key South African hope for success.
The media-shy Van der Burgh experienced a pre-Barcelona scare, but a suspected knee injury proved to be only a strain.
“I had a shoulder injury since the Olympics, but that has cleared up and I am grateful to be competing. Hopefully, we will bring some medals home,” he said.
But probably not too many, concedes coach Graham Hill, as a mainly young, untested team has been chosen with an eye on the 2016 Rio Olympics.
“We are relying on our experienced swimmers – Chad le Clos, Cameron van der Burgh, Gerhard Zandberg, Roland Schoeman – for medals.
“The team is being rebuilt after a lot of post-London retirements. It is not our biggest or strongest squad, but it is our youngest.”
Schoeman came sixth at the London Games 50m freestyle while Zandberg has his sights set on success in the 50m and 100m backstroke events.
London 200m women's breaststroke finalist Suzaan van Biljon failed to qualify for Barcelona, leaving South Africa with little chance of female medalists.
“There are a lot of young girls in the team and we are not expecting them to bring medals back,” admitted Hill.
“We hope these championships will give them the experience they need to compete at the highest level, and we hope to unearth an elite girl swimmer.”
At 15, Marlies Ross is the 'baby' of the squad and her 400m medley times have Hill smiling.
“We are keeping a close eye on Marlies, who is swimming quite well at the moment. Let us see what she can deliver for us,” he added. – Sapa-AFP