Chad Le Clos Details ‘Unbelievable’ Journey to Olympic Gold in New Book

DURBAN, South Africa, May 5. CHAD Le Clos has become a South African national hero in the 20 months since he beat Michael Phelps in the 200 butterfly at the 2012 Olympics. The South African sensation has penned a new autobiography, called “Unbelievable,” in which he takes readers on the journey to that fateful day in London.

The book, which he co-wrote with Myan Subrayan, has taken Le Clos on a whirlwind book tour through South Africa in the past couple of weeks, meeting hundreds of fans and signing enough books to warrant hand cramps.

Though the book has found most of its success in South Africa during its first few weeks of publication, a paper copy of “Unbelievable” can be shipped to virtually any country in the world through the following two online retailers:



The book is also available on Kindle through

Below, an excerpt from the book, courtesy Penguin Press:

As I look back, I remember that everything about that day was like a dream. It felt as if something special was in the air and something amazing was going to happen. Graham had been listening to the same song before the big races: ‘Picture’ by Kid Rock. On the bus ride to the
pool, about two hours before the race, he played it for me.

That ‘unbelievable’ 200 m butterfly final.

We arrived at the pool at 5:50 p.m. I began my pre-race preparation and Graham went through our plan. With about an hour and a half to go, I started my stretching exercises. One hour before the race, I dived in and began my warm-up swim, which we set for 25 minutes — the plan was to get out 35 minutes before the race.

Those were very emotional moments and a lot of thoughts were rushing through my mind. With 20 minutes to go, as I walked through the tunnel into the first call room, I turned and asked Graham if he had any last words. ‘I’m going to be like Chubbs,’ he said.

‘Chubbs’ was the name he used for my dad. And then he kissed me on my forehead. He had seen Dad do this many times. This added a nice personal touch, an indication of how close we had become over the years we had been together. Our relationship was more than just coach and student — and that moment crystallised it. From the early days of swimming in the pool at his house to the biggest stage in the world — the Olympic Games. Getting to London 2012 had been a team achievement.

Before we parted, Graham turned to me and told me what I needed to do. I will never forget those words: ‘This is the last time you will ever getto race Michael Phelps in the 200 m butterfly. If you want to beat him, you have to beat him tonight. This is your last chance.’

He was right, it was going to be Michael’s last race at the 200 m butterfly, so this was the only chance I would have to beat him. It was going to be a David and Goliath battle, and I was up against the Goliath of swimming. I was also doing it for my beloved South Africa. It was now time for me to report to the first call room, where all the swimmers have to present their caps, goggles and swimsuits to make sure that they are FINA approved. I had no problems and went through. I had my iPod in my ears, my cap in my left pocket and my goggles around my neck. I always carry a charm with me, which Jordan has made a habit of giving to me. Usually, before big races, he gives me some sort of good-luck gift. I proceeded into the second call room, which is most intimidating. It is like a classroom with mirrors on both sides, so you are watched from every angle. Maybe it’s done on purpose to test you and your nerve. To see the lane arrangements with the names of the competitors seemed surreal: Michael Phelps in lane 6, Matsuda in lane 4 … and there was my spot in lane 5. This was finally the dream come true: but it was now also real — I was going to be racing alongside Phelps in an Olympic final. As I went into that Olympic final, my best time that year had been 1:55.07. The previous year, in Europe, while training hard on the circuit, I had done 1:57 seconds. So with my best time of 1:55, I knew I could better that here at the Olympics by at least two seconds and therefore 1:53 was on the cards. But I also had to beat Phelps at his own game in the underwaters.

But before that race, nobody could have expected me to break the 153-second barrier. Only one person had been faster without a bodysuit: that was Phelps, when he did it in 152 seconds and set a new world record without wearing a bodysuit. My friend Ryan Passmore had made me a music mix, which I had not listened to until then. I had it playing on my iPod as I entered the swimming pool arena. It was a combination of my school, Westville High, chanting ‘We want Chad’ and some pumped-up music in the background. The punchline was the voice of actor Will Smith talking to his son in the movie Pursuit of Happyness, where he tells him to always pursue and protect his dreams, regardless of what other people tell you.

Ryan’s passion is music and being a DJ:

Chad heard one of my mixes and asked if I could make a mix of his own choice of music. He took this to the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Since then, it has become a tradition for me to put together music mixes for him. Initially, I thought he wanted the music to listen to on the plane or in his hotel room. I didn’t realise he was listening to it before his races, and I was pleased when I found this out. For the Olympics I gave him the ‘Chad le Clos Olympic mix’. I composed it as a motivational piece to help him step up to the next level. As he went to the 2012 London Olympics, many thought he would be just another swimmer. My biggest fear was that after he won the gold, he would forget us and get new famous friends.

However, after returning from London, he asked me to come around for a game of Fifa and stay for some of his dad’s famous curry. From that day, I knew that he hadn’t changed and he is still the same Chad le Clos that I have grown to respect. I’m not very good with words and when I came across this dialogue in the Will Smith movie, I felt it conveyed the message I wanted Chad to hear: that he should not listen to people telling him he couldn’t achieve his dreams. So I put it together with some upbeat music and our school chanting his name during one of his race meets.

That music was still playing in my ears as I entered the arena. When Phelps appeared behind me, the spectators went bananas and I could hear their cheering even through the earphones. Undeterred, I went through my formality, which is to engage my ‘trigger’. This is a switch for me to shut out everything. I put on my game face and focus completely on the race ahead. The procedure I go through involves touching the water, touching my swimming trunks to make them wet, and then touching my mouth and heart twice. For that race, I also had another special ‘trigger’– one that was reserved exclusively for those Games and one that will never be used again in another. Being an avid follower of Phelps for some time, I had observed that he performs a pre-race ritual, in the form of a slap on his body. When I heard that familiar slap, it spurred me on even more — that was my special ‘trigger’ for these Games. I was ready, bring it on! We were called to our marks, the starter’s signal sounded and we went off. The exact time was 7:52.10.

After we dived in, I realised I had had a good start, as I was ahead when I came up. I had to stick to the race plan and stay close to Phelps. After the first turn, Michael was ahead — which was what we had expected; I was second, with Matsuda third. I knew if I was still with him at the 100 m halfway mark, I would stand a great chance to beat him. At turn two, Phelps was still ahead, I was second and Velimir Stjepanovic was moving up into third place. The key was to stay all the way with Phelps and build from the third 50 m lap.

Easier said than done, as Michael was going hard out and what I was attempting to do over the last 50 was something not many had achieved. Come to think of it, I couldn’t remember anyone beating Michael over the last 50 m of a 200 m butterfly final for a long time. In the third lap, Matsuda put in a great swim and was now second behind Michael, who split 1:21.93.

Turning for home, even though I had dropped to third, I looked left and right and said to myself that I could get at least silver. That moment was when I began to draw on all the training sessions. I dug in deep to begin to reel Michael in. In those last 50 m, everything went into slow motion. I remember turning in the last 50 — I just looked at Michael underwater and realised this was my hero. In disbelief, I began saying to myself, ‘I’m actually catching Michael, wow I’m doing it!’ That made me press even more and realise that my dream could now become a reality. ‘Oh my gosh, you can beat him!’ I thought.

Graham has a distinct whistle that all of us at Seagulls recognise. I could hear his whistle now. As I was coming through the last 25 m, I looked over to my right and saw Phelps; I saw how close I was to him.

I was thinking how I was closing in on him with every stroke. I had the confidence that I could beat him: our plan was working. Going into the Olympics with the training regime Graham and I had worked on, I was very fit — probably the fittest butterfly swimmer there. The key was to use the bottom half of my legs and hips like a dolphin to gain more power and speed.

Having watched all of Michael’s races, I knew how strong he finished. It may sound crazy, but I actually thought I was Michael at the last turn. When I turned and looked at him, that split second was another trigger point for me. I remember thinking to myself, and my coach’s words, ‘Keep it long and make sure you don’t shorten up.’ The last 20 m felt like it took ages. The wall was coming up fast and I had to remind myself not to put my head down too early — as I usually go wild and do this. It came down to the flags and, as Graham and I had laboriously planned over and over again, I knew that this was the part where I had to execute the final aspect of our plan to perfection and make sure I touched the wall hard. I did exactly everything according to plan, knowing that Michael would glide into the wall. My final touch had to be perfectly timed so that I hit the wall at full speed.

Coming into the last three strokes, Michael may have thought he had already won, but I executed my final touch with perfection and finished at full speed, stretching for the wall. I think I still have a bump on that middle finger from hitting the wall so hard on the last strok e. Initially, I genuinely thought I had come second. But as I looked up and saw my name in first place, I celebrated by screaming ‘yes!’, punch in the water and throwing my hands up in the air.

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Author: Jeff Commings

Jeff Commings is the Senior Writer for and Swimming World Magazine. He graduated from the University of Texas at Austin with a degree in journalism and was a nine-time NCAA All-American.

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