Olympic Champion Chad le Clos: The Start of a Powerful Comeback

by | Jul 8, 2024 | Life

After surviving a debilitating internal struggle, Olympic champion Chad le Clos wants to prove he’s not on his final lap but at the start of a new chapter. Sink or swim, there’s only one thing that matters: he’s giving it his all.

No athlete wants to be told to hit the brakes, but when you’re screeching towards the edge of a cliff—slowing down is your only option. For most of his life, Chad le Clos has only known one way of life: go full throttle. Whether he’s training or diving into the pool during the Olympics, the gold medalist swimmer’s MO has always been to go as fast as possible. And that drive, that determination to squeeze maximum distance out of every stroke has cemented the athlete as not just a hometown hero, but also as one of the greats.

But a tunnel-visioned approach, an obsessive dedication to the sport that has given him everything, meant he didn’t notice when his mental health started to crumble. By 2021, after dealing with a “series of traumas”, he woke up in a dark place. While he could thrive in the water, this pit of desperation was a foreign arena. Without the tools to claw back into a healthy state of mind, he wallowed in his low moments. “I wasn’t enjoying anything anymore,” admits Le Clos. “Swimming, relaxing or even just playing video games.

Nothing could take my attention away from how I was feeling.” He’s out of the woods now, wearing the battle scars of this mental battle proudly. Le Clos talks candidly about his struggles, willing to admit that for the first time in his life, he didn’t have the skill set to deal with a challenge. “There were always glimpses of hope during that time,” he says. 

READ MORE: Chad Le Clos: Unveiling the Journey of an Olympic Champion in ‘Born Racer’

“Times where I could see the sun. But they were few and far between, and then it was right back into that dark place.” With zero resilience, the pressures of the sport were also starting to take their toll. The result? He was making “rash decisions”, he was “losing his way”. And his performances in the pool began to reflect his embattled mental state. He was going slower, falling far short of those pole positions that at one point were his natural stomping ground.

Chad le Clos
Chad le Clos, photographed by Jurie Potgieter

From the outside, it looked like he had simply peaked. After all, the hard truth of sports is that every career has an expiration date, and most athletes will begin to dip once they enter their 30s.

To pundits, the Le Clos who had bested his idol Michael Phelps in the final of the 200m butterfly at London 2012 to snag gold for South Africa in an Olympic run where the precious metal was in short supply, those groundbreaking achievements were starting to become a distant memory. That swimming feat had put Le Clos on the map, and he arrived back home heralded as a hero. It was the start of an impressive run, one that left his trophy cabinets overflowing. But by 2021, stuck in a dark place, Le Clos was struggling to formulate a blueprint on how to reignite his fighting form. Once pegged as the “greatest champion of all time”, being the greatest was no longer the goal: it was just about survival.

Family Roots and Early Success: The Foundation of a Champion

Born and raised in Durban, Le Clos has always had a supportive family. When I first spoke to the athlete more than a decade ago, fresh off his gold-medal-winning run in London, he was quick to credit his tight-knit family for his mental resilience in the pool. “My family is everything to me,” he says. “My parents, brothers, sisters—through tough times they’ve always been there, it’s always been unconditional.” The 32-year-old first started swimming competitively at the age of 10.

Chad le Clos
Chad le Clos, photographed by Jurie Potgieter

By 14, he was already a member of SA’s senior Olympic squad. Before his Olympic accolades, he’d been on a dominant run, crushing Junior and Senior records at the Commonwealth Games before striking gold at the Youth Olympic Games where he snatched five medals with his unrelenting pace in the pool. But 2012 was the moment he announced himself to the world, winning gold and beating Michael Phelps, arguably the greatest athlete ever to grace the pool. The rest, as they say, is history. You’d think his monumental success would translate into a massive ego, but Le Clos has always carried himself with a degree of humility. He’s laidback, amiable and quick to credit others for his feats of strength. Speaking to the athlete again, a decade later, it’s clear he’s still the same Chad: family-oriented, performance-focused and still passionate about video games.

“What are you playing?” I ask him and he lights up. “Got to be honest, I’m obsessed with Hogwarts Legacy right now,” he says, before delving into the full catalogue of games he’s completed over the past year. That might not seem like much, but there was a point not long ago when not even his favourite pastime would give him joy. Despite plenty of success in the wake of his 2012 goldmine, the cogs were starting to loosen, and he was headed for a serious disaster. “I was training hard, doing what I do best, but something wasn’t right,” he says. 

“Mentally, I started to get into a rut, and by 2021 I hit rock bottom.” If you’re not being introspective, depression can feel like an ambush. While you’re focusing on doing your job and putting the pieces into place; the silent spectre of this debilitating condition is getting ready to rip the rug from right under your feet. No one is immune, not even battle-forged athletes who have spent years steeling their minds for the heavy pressures of competition. Michael Phelps, whose athletic feats almost make him seem inhuman, is not immune either. The decorated American athlete recently shared the grisly details of his long-standing battle with anxiety, depression and suicidal thoughts. In interviews, he’s admitted he tried to compartmentalise those feelings, but it was a losing battle; they’d reappear time and time again.

READ MORE: Your Ultimate Guide to the 2024 Paris Olympics

His salvation: therapy and learning to accept those low moments. Le Clos would have to learn those same lessons. “There were days where I couldn’t get out of bed,” admits Le Clos. “Where I didn’t want to get out of bed. I was running on empty psychologically.” He’d get upset about the smallest things, and that brittle mindset translated into mistakes in the pool. “It was all because of my head,” he adds. “If your head isn’t in the game, you can’t succeed.” It was clear he needed to stage an intervention, which came in the form of introspection, therapy and reframing his approach to life. “The biggest thing was having humility,” he says.

“I needed to humble myself, get back to the ground level and build myself up from scratch. Had I lost my way when it came to swimming? Yes, I did. I didn’t disrespect the sport, I disrespected myself. I neglected my sleep, my mental health, you name it.” “It was the hardest battle I’ve ever fought,” says Le Clos. “I consider myself a warrior, but I’d find myself crying on my knees in the shower.” He started going to therapy sessions, and they helped him open up. “I finally had the words to talk about the stuff that was affecting me,” he says. “I wasn’t carrying it alone; I could just get it out there.”

Day by day, the new approach helped pull him from that “dark pit”. He realised there was more to life than swimming, and that not every race was “do or die” but rather an opportunity to improve and, eventually, re-engineer those winning performances. He was feathering the brakes, saving the real mental push for race day. “Things started to affect me less, I was getting back to a logical place,” he says. “And I went from feeling defeated to being back in a great spot.”

Embracing Change: Chad le Clos’ Evolution as an Athlete

Chad le Clos

Getting older as an athlete is always a moment of reckoning. You can’t train as hard as you used to, recovery times are longer and you can’t fall back on raw athletic ability in the same way you could as a young swimmer in your prime. “That was something I just had to accept,” says Le Clos. “There’s no more straight-up sparring with others, I have to be smarter in my approach.” Armed with an ironclad mindset, he’s recalibrated his game plan. Since last year, he’s been training in Germany, waking up at the break of dawn for training sessions and using downtime to focus on his recovery, sleep and mental state. “It feels like going back to basics, and it’s exactly what I needed,” he says. The best athletes don’t try to fight Father Time but rather adjust their thinking.

When you’re older, there’s a smaller margin for error. You can’t win races on just four hours of sleep, and you can’t break yourself during training and expect to have the stamina left to log a decent time the next day. “I’ve had to evolve my technique, and you know what? I embrace that,” he says.

“I dominated for so many years, but the old plans aren’t going to work for the new Chad.” His sights are still set on podiums, medals and smashing records. 

The game plan is already paying off with a silver medal at the 2022 Commonwealth Games. That win means he’s now tied for the most decorated male competitor at the Commonwealth Games with 18 medals to his name. He’s also got his eyes set on this year’s Olympics in Paris—a chance to recapture the glory of 2012. “Big things are coming,” he says. “It’s a real David and Goliath situation.

READ MORE: Thapelo Mokoena: Crafting a New Chapter at 40 Through Film, Family and Farm Roots

I’ll be racing against some of the greatest swimmers of our time—but all I need is a bit of luck and mountains of work and I can make it happen. “Right now, my mind is bulletproof, and when it comes to the mental game, I know these guys can’t beat me,” adds Le Clos. He’s survived his hardest battle and that’s armed him with the confidence that he can win the war. Le Clos has everything to gain and nothing to lose. In short, he’s in his comfort zone: “We’re going to strive for everything, I’m going for the jugular,” he says.

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