JOHANNESBURG - Multiple Olympic champion Michael Phelps is still haunting Chad le Clos’ thoughts as the South African battles to shake off the disappointment of his 200m butterfly defeat at the Rio Olympic Games last year.
It was billed as the duel of the 2016 Olympics, with Phelps admitting he’d come out of retirement to reclaim the crown he had relinquished to Le Clos four years earlier in London.
Phelps put paid to the memory of the narrow 0.05 seconds defeat at the hands of the South African by winning in Rio and relegating Le Clos to fourth place.
“I want to win that 200m fly badly. I am training for that and will hopefully win gold this year. So that is my goal,” said Le Clos.
“I want it that bad. I just want Phelps to come back. I’ve had nightmares about that. I wake up in the middle of the night in a sweat over that race.”
Le Clos's win haunted Phelps after London 2012, as the loss of one of his most coveted crowns forced him to ditch his plan to retire.
The most decorated Olympian of all time said losing his 200m butterfly crown at the 2012 Games played a major role in his comeback in 2014.
“I thought if I won the 200m fly in London I probably wouldn’t come back... (now) I can look back and say the 200m fly in Rio was probably the greatest race in my Olympic career,” Phelps said at the Laureus Sports Awards in Monaco this week.
“I didn’t think I was going to swim that race at the Olympics (Rio Games) and things started to come together.
“I don’t think I ever had to dig that deep in my career and that is something I was proud to do after the loss in 2012.
“But I can say I will be excited to see what Chad does over the next four years.”
Phelps went on to add five more gold medals at the Rio Games, while also sharing silver with Le Clos, and Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh.
Winning the 200m freestyle silver medal the day before the big clash, and adding the 100m butterfly silver, were of little consolation to Le Clos. The 200m fly had been his pride and joy. It is the event that launched him to international stardom, and earned him the title of “giant slayer”.
The first two years building up to the Rio Games went according to plan as Le Clos established himself as the undisputed butterfly champion.
The wheels wobbled slightly at the 2015 Fina World Championships in Kazan, Russia where Cseh defeated Le Clos in the 200m butterfly.
Le Clos has since vowed to bounce back.
Speaking at his newly-adopted city, Cape Town, one senses the change is hardly a holiday but it’ll be a hard graft towards redemption.
At the end of last year Le Clos announced his split from long-time coach Graham Hill, with Italian mentor Andrea di Nino taking charge at the Chad le Clos Academy in Cape Town.
He has since joined international swimming club Energy Standard, based in Turkey and headed by former British National Training Centre coach, James Gibson.
“It is very technical. I’ve learned a lot about my technique and stroke over the past month. I’m still pumping the mileage,” Le Clos said about the change in coaches and postal codes.
“Everyone has a similar approach by the way you structure it. I’ve done a lot of techniques, a lot of new stuff.
“It has been a positive change, I’m happy with everything and we will obviously see how the results go. It is still early days.”
Le Clos opened his season at the Durban leg of the Swimming SA Grand Prix series, where he won the 100m butterfly in the second fastest time of the year, clocking 52.20 seconds.
He will swim his first 200m butterfly at next weekend’s Stellenbosch leg before flying to Italy for a three-week training camp ahead of the national championships in early April.
“I’m not too worried about the times now. Last year I was obsessed about swimming fast all the time. I went fast but I am not going to get over-amped about it,” Le Clos said.
“I’ve had some good blocks of training. Stellenbosch would be a good gauge for me before I head off to Italy.”