African Swimmers of the Millennium: Chad le Clos and Kirsty Coventry Are Runaway Winners


African Swimmers of the Millennium: Chad le Clos and Kirsty Coventry Are Runaway Winners

With the COVID-19 pandemic canceling the most-important competitions of the year, Swimming World made the decision its Swimmer of the Year selections for 2020. There simply was not enough data to legitimately honor individuals as World, American, European, Pacific Rim and African Swimmers of the Year. Instead, we decided to name the Swimmers of the Millennium for the first 20 years (2000-19) of the 2000s.

First up, the African Swimmers of the Millennium.

By Dan D’Addona

Chad le Clos, South Africa

Chad le Clos has played the part of the hero and the villain at times during his career.

Of course, it depends on the point of view of one of the greatest rivalries in swimming history.

The South African hero rose to become an Olympic champion. However, he also became a villain—at least to some—when he was shadowboxing in the ready room in front of Michael Phelps, who was staring straight ahead in what became known as the “death stare”…which was blown up because of the rivalry between the two swimmers.

But the reason the rivalry got so much attention was because le Clos is one of the best swimmers in the world—and has been for a decade.

He has won on every stage and is easily one of the greatest swimmers in the history of Africa.

Le Clos was selected as Swimming World’s Male African Swimmer of the Millennium. He finished ahead of fellow South African Cameron van der Burgh and Tunisian distance star Ous Mellouli.

As a teen, le Clos was already a South African record holder and won five medals at the Youth Olympic Games before really breaking onto the scene at the 2010 Commonwealth Games, where he won the gold medal in the 200 butterfly before winning gold in the same event at the FINA Short Course World Championships.

He was a hero in South Africa already, but it was the 2012 Olympic Games in London where he became an international star.
In the signature moment of his career, le Clos defeated Phelps head-to-head in the 200 butterfly to win the gold medal in London by a mere 5-hundredths of a second in one of the most epic races in swimming history.

He also won the silver medal in the 100 butterfly, finishing behind Phelps in another great race in the rivalry that saw a pair of 1-2 finishes with each rival winning one of the races.

In between London and Rio, le Clos won gold in both butterfly events at the Commonwealth Games and became the first swimmer to win the FINA World Cup Series overall title three times. He also won all three butterfly events at the FINA World Championships in 2014, the first swimmer to accomplish the feat—something he did four times overall. He was named FINA Male Swimmer of the Year in 2014 before winning the 100 butterfly at Worlds in 2015.

At the Rio Olympics in 2016, le Clos and Phelps again went head-to-head in an epic race, tying for the silver medal, along with Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh, in a three-way tie behind Singapore’s Joseph Schooling. It was again one of the most epic races in swimming history.

But he wasn’t done.

Le Clos won gold in the 200 butterfly at Worlds in 2017, then in 2018, he became the most decorated Commonwealth Games swimmer in history. He won all three butterfly events that year plus a silver in the 100 freestyle and a bronze in the 400 medley relay to push his career medal total to 17.

He then won gold in the 100 fly and four total medals at the 2018 FINA Short Course World Championships, earning FINA’s yearly top honor for the second time.

In 2019, he won bronze in both butterfly events at the Long Course World Championships before becoming one of the faces of the International Swimming League, leading Energy Standard to the inaugural ISL championship in 2019.

Now, le Clos is looking to add to his success in Tokyo 2021.


1. CHAD LE CLOS, South Africa (8)
2. Cameron van der Burgh, South Africa (1)
3. Ous Mellouli, Tunisia
(First-place votes in parentheses)

Kirsty Coventry, Zimbabwe

Kirsty Coventry reached the Olympics as a teenager in 2000. While she didn’t medal in Sydney, it was the beginning of the most successful swimming career in African history.

Coventry, from Zimbabwe, returned to the Olympics in 2004 and won the gold medal in the 200 backstroke, the silver in the 100 backstroke and bronze in the 200 IM, one of the best individual performances in Olympic swimming history, as well as African history.

Coventry was selected as Swimming World’s African Female Swimmer of the Millennium’s First 20 Years, finishing ahead of finalists Farida Osman of Egypt and Tatjana Schoenmaker of South Africa.


Kirsty Coventry – Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

After Coventry’s stunning performance in Athens, she wasn’t done. In fact, she wasn’t even at the midpoint of her Olympic career, which would span an amazing five Olympiads!

In Beijing in 2008, Coventry successfully defended her gold medal in the 200 backstroke, then won three silver medals for an even more impressive haul than in 2004. In Beijing, she won the silver medal in the 100 backstroke and both the 200 IM and 400 IM.

Coventry would return to the Olympics in London and Rio, making her fourth and fifth appearance, respectively, on the world’s biggest stage, though she did not medal.

In between all of those Olympic performances, Coventry continued her success on the world’s stage. She won gold in the 100 and 200 backstrokes at the 2005 World Championships, also claiming silver in both IM events. In 2007, she won silver in the 200 back and 200 IM, then in 2009, she won gold in the 200 back and silver in the 400 IM.

Coventry has continued to remain in the sport of swimming as a member of the International Olympic Committee’s Executive Board, a post she has held since 2018. She is the vice president of the National Olympic Committee of Zimbabwe and vice president of the International Surfing Association.


1. KIRSTY COVENTRY, Zimbabwe (9)
2. Farida Osman, Egypt
3. Tatjana Schoenmaker, South Africa
(First-place votes in parentheses)