Throwback Thursday: Chad le Clos Chases Down Michael Phelps For Stunning Olympic Gold

Chad le Clos -- Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

Throwback Thursday: Chad le Clos Chases Down Michael Phelps For Stunning Olympic Gold

Before the 2012 Olympic final of the men’s 200 butterfly, no one had beaten Michael Phelps in a major final of the event for 12 years. For all the accolades Phelps earned in his greatest-of-all-time career, the 200 fly was his signature event, the one in which he made his Olympic debut as a 15-year-old and the one in which he earned his first world record and world title. In between Phelps’ first Olympic final of the event and his fourth, he won two Olympic golds (including one with leaking goggles) and five world titles while resetting the world record on eight different occasions.

But the London Games were the only one of Phelps’ five Olympics in which he did not show up in tip-top shape. Over the previous two years, Phelps had taken a handful of losses during in-season competitions, and this gold-medal pursuit, in which Phelps was aiming to become the first male swimmer to ever win three consecutive Olympic golds in one event, would be no easy task.

Japan’s Takeshi Matsuda, the World Championships silver medalist one year earlier and a consistent medal presence in the event, was considered the biggest threat to Phelps, and Matsuda had qualified first in the semifinals. But in between Matsuda and Phelps in the final was Chad le Clos, a skinny 20-year-old from South Africa considered a rising star in the sport. Le Clos, who had already won gold medals in the event at the Commonwealth Games and Short Course World Championships as a teenager, swam a time of 1:54.43 in the Olympic semifinals, an African record but nowhere near the best times of Phelps or Matsuda.

That did not matter. In the Olympic final, le Clos unleashed a career-defining performance. Refusing to be overwhelmed by the moment, le Clos stayed close to the favorites, saved up for a finishing burst — and won Olympic gold.

Phelps was long known for his clutch finishes, coming from well behind in the final meters to out-touch fading competitors. He did that to Ian Crocker in the 2004 Olympic final of the 100 fly and to Milorad Cavic in the same event four years later. But this time, it was a fading Phelps running out of gas as le Clos surged ahead. Coming down the stretch, Phelps had an arm-length lead, but he took a long stroke into the finish, gliding into the wall as his South African hit the finish perfectly. In a time of 1:52.96, his best time by one-and-a-half seconds, le Clos claimed Olympic gold.

As he realized what he had done, le Clos smashed the water in joy and disbelief. He was on the verge of tears as he sat on the lane line before dropping back into the pool to acknowledge Phelps, who had finished five hundredths behind for silver.

That moment made le Clos a star, and over the last decade, he has continued to put forth quality performances at international meets. Later on in London, he won silver in the 100 fly, and four years later in Rio de Janeiro, he used a scintillating start to take an early lead in the 200 freestyle final before holding on for silver. He faded to a surprising fourth in the 200 fly final, but he rebounded to finish in a three-way tie for silver in the 100 fly, joining Phelps and another familiar rival, Laszlo Cseh. In perhaps the most humorous moment of those Games, the three longtime rivals held hands as they climbed the medal podium together.

In his career, le Clos has won four individual world titles, winning the 100 fly in 2013 and 2015 and the 200 fly in 2013 and 2017. He has captured three further butterfly medals at the World Championships, and at Short Course Worlds, he has won a whopping 12 golds, spanning the three butterfly distances plus the 200 free, and 20 total medals. At the Commonwealth Games, the total is seven gold and 18 total medals.

For all those accomplishments, which have made le Clos one of the best swimmers ever from Africa, his signature moment remains that golden swim in the London final, when he earned just the third-ever Olympic swimming gold for a South African male, joining the 400 free relay team in 2004 and breaststroker Cameron van der Burgh two days earlier.

In that moment, le Clos was not intimidated racing the greatest swimmer in history, and that’s how he shocked the world.

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