What it Takes to Win

Olympic, World and Commonwealth champion Chad le Clos joined the inauguration of GEMS Wellington Academy – Al Khail’s Swimming Centre of Excellence in October. He took part in a panel discussion alongside the school’s principal, Neil Matthews, and representatives from Hamilton Aquatics and Swim England, with Dubai Eye radio host Chris McHardy as emcee

The event kicked off with a video of Chad le Clos famously snatching gold from Michael Phelps, the greatest Olympian swimmer of all time, in the 200m butterfly at the 2012 Olympics in London.

How does it feel looking back at that race now?
I’ve watched that race more than 1,000 times. After I won, I watched it every single day, at least three or four times. I’m not ashamed to admit that it was the best day of my life. It was unbelievable because everything I worked on growing up and dreamed of came true that day. Michael Phelps, who was my idol growing up, hadn’t been beaten for 10 years. He was in the prime of his life, and then a young, skinny South African came and shocked the world that day. Swimming is a real privilege for me. It’s surreal that I’m here telling you my story.

Talk to us about the sacrifices you’ve had to make?
The sacrifices my parents made for me were unbelievable; the early mornings, the 4am and 5am wakeups to drive me to practice. They were there for me at every competition, supporting me, guiding me, giving me advice at every turn. It’s a cliché, but I wouldn’t be where I am now without them. Thank you to my parents.

What were the key ingredients of your success?
I truly did believe I was going to be successful. I remember telling my friends when I was 10 years old that I was going to be a world champion. I started to believe it. In my mind, I was always dreaming about racing Michael Phelps, about positive things. I always envisioned that. Looking back on it now, that was one of the key factors because I created that law of attraction in my mind. I truly saw that Olympic race 1,000 times before it happened. I would let Phelps go the first 50 metres and then shock him in the last 50 metres. I practiced that every day. I loved the competitive side. It’s not to overstress it and put too much pressure on yourself, but to do it naturally. Of course, you need the discipline, the sacrifice, the hard work. There are a lot of factors, but that was key. It helped me subconsciously.

Chad le Clos with Michael Phelps after beating him to take first place in the 2012 Olympics Games 
Credit: Getty Images
Chad le Clos with Michael Phelps after beating him in the 2012 Olympics Games
Credit: Getty Images

What did Michael Phelps say to you after the race?
Truthfully he was quite shocked. In the water he didn’t say much.
I was quite shocked myself – I had just beaten the best swimmer of all time. He was gracious in the end. We went to the hospitality house after the race and I was buzzing. People like George Clooney and Nicole Kidman were there. I was this 20-year-old kid taking pictures of everyone. It was a crazy experience.

Is there a line that’s stuck with you throughout your career?
My dad taught me never to give up from a young age. It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter if I’m coming 80th or 100th in a race. I can lose today but I will come back tomorrow and keep coming back. There’s only one man you have to fear and that’s a man who never gives up. That’s the way I approach my training and my competitive events. You judge a man’s character, not by how he celebrates victory. You judge it by how he is when his back is against the wall. You see a person’s true character then. Come out swinging every time.

Back in South Africa, did you have any foes in the pool?
There were many guys that beat me when I was younger. You have to learn to lose before you can win. You lose a lot more than you win. I went through years of losing and learning how to swim, how to race. You have to endure it. Nobody is winning an Olympic gold medal at the age of nine years old. And a lot of parents concentrate too much on their children winning at a young age, but if you have the expertise around you, they will guide you and take you to that next level slowly. So enjoying the process and enjoying all the strokes is important. Nobody knows that I was a breaststroker until the age of 16. I was the Commonwealth Junior Holder and now I can’t even swim breaststroke. The steps and levels are very important.

You beat Michael Phelps in 2012 and for a few years, you admitted you lost your way. Talk about the lessons you learned from that time?
After winning the Olympics, I was thrown into the deep end, no pun intended. I didn’t change as a person, my morals didn’t change, but it became difficult as everywhere I went, people knew me and took pictures. You don’t understand until you’re in that situation. I came out of my relationship with my coach and we had a falling out. After the Olympics I decided to move to Turkey where I had a great coach and he understood me. I was happy with that decision. Success is how you perceive it. Next year [at the Tokyo Olympic Games], I will know that I’ve left no stone unturned. I’ve had a lot of injuries over the past two years. When you’re stepping up for that event or that exam, you just have to give yourself the best chance and be the most prepared you can be and if it doesn’t happen, c’est la vie. You’ve got to be proud of yourself. I truly believe that I will win one gold medal in 2020.

How has swimming changed when it comes to technology and training and science?
Swimming has changed so much in the past decade. When I started, it was about doing a couple of pushups a day and a few minutes of stretching. Now people are doing cross training, CrossFit, gym work, everything and the sport has evolved. You see guys that swim more events now, too, continuously throughout the season. In the past, people were picking one or two events and swimming only those. I definitely need to pick my game up for the Olympics next year.

Chad le Clos addresses swimming scholars at GEMS Wellington Academy - Al Khail
Chad le Clos addresses swimming scholars at GEMS Wellington Academy –
Al Khail

Swimming at GEMS Wellington Academy – Al Khail #WEKswim

Principal of GEMS Wellington Academy, Neil Matthews
Principal of GEMS Wellington Academy, Neil Matthews

Let’s hear from you, Neil, about the role of parents when it comes to sport in school?
The Centre of Excellence here is all about passion and about belief. My philosophy as a leader and our philosophy as a school is if our students believe they will achieve anything, then they will. But the difference is having people around them to help, and having parents that love them and give them every opportunity they can. And teachers who love to teach and love to give children those opportunities.

What makes the Centre of Excellence here so unique?
I think the key is the flexibility and the personalisation that we’re able to provide through the programme. We enable our students to train here, and we’ve seen the hours of training they do and the competitions they get involved in. On top of that, our students have got to learn and succeed academically. So the Centre of Excellence enables our students to do everything, in a package. But it’s personalised, so where our students are able to replace parts of the curriculum for training, then we can offer that. We can also offer a package of nutrition so they’re able to get the right food here at school. No longer do our parents have to spend hours on the road, taking children from school to school, and to different events. It all happens in one place.

So you’re tailoring the academia programme to ensure students are getting good marks as well as swimming, how key is structuring that?
It’s essential and this is where the partnership with teachers and parents is really important, so that personalisation for every athlete is done in consultation with families to ensure we get the balance right. But, again, it’s about recognising the importance of also ensuring our students are achieving great things academically, as some of our scholars are in the middle of GCSEs, but also looking for those opportunities where we can be more flexible, like when students are involved in an overseas competition or event. It’s having the understanding from our teaching team that those students are having a hard time, and knowing they will come back from overseas events really tired. So it’s building an environment to allow them to have the space and time to catch up.

How do parents add to the Centre of Excellence offering?
That partnership with parents and communicating with them on a frequent basis is essential to the success of the athletes. We cannot do enough to communicate with our families. It’s vital. It’s ensuring that our parents are invited to the school for a range of activities. It’s about building opportunities to invite parents in, to involve parents in decision-making. We have a parent council and we have various groups where parents can come to leaders and get involved in decisions about the direction the school is going in. No school is perfect. The key is to get parents involved and have them at the heart of the community.

Swimming scholars interviewing Chad le Clos
Swimming scholars interviewing Chad le Clos at GEMS Wellington Academy

Students also had the chance to interview Chad le Clos

When you first went to the Olympics, how did you feel?
It was a dream come true. When I was 12 years old, in 2004, that’s when Michael Phelps was swimming at the Athens Olympics and that’s when I used to look up to him. So when I was training at the first Olympic Games, I was racing against my hero.

How did you feel when you beat Michael Phelps?
It was a great moment for me because it had been my dream to race my hero. When I was young, I dreamed of going to the Olympics.

What is your favourite exercise?
Inside the pool, butterfly is my favourite stroke. Outside the pool, I think pushups and pullups are the most underrated exercises. I’m not very good but I practice every day.

What inspired you to take up swimming?
Michael Phelps was my inspiration.

When you were 10, were you good at the butterfly?
No, I wasn’t very good when I was 10. I don’t think I even swam butterfly then; I did breaststroke. My mum always said she liked when I swam butterfly and then 10 years later I beat Michael Phelps. Maybe in 10 years one of you can beat me.

My goals drive me. It’s different for everyone. It’s whatever motivates you – what you want to achieve. You have to believe in yourself and just go for it. It’s down to you. I always wake up to my Olympic dream.

How do you manage nerves?
It’s good to be a little bit nervous, and when I was younger I definitely got extremely nervous – just ask my dad! But what I learned over the years is how to control those emotions. We had a sports psychologist who I went to about two years ago and he said, you have to be controlled. Not too excited, not too laid back. Not too overly-aggressive, but not too chilled either. I like to listen to music to get in the zone, about 20 minutes beforehand. Even now, I’m always nervous before my first race, shaking on the block. At the end of the day, we’re all human.

What do you do when you feel like giving up?
There’s always a time when you don’t want to get up for training in the morning. What kept me going was my family support and my goals. I think about them every day. My goals drive me. It’s different for everyone. It’s whatever motivates you – what you want to achieve. You have to believe in yourself and just go for it. It’s down to you. I always wake up to my Olympic dream.