Swims butterfly, and stings like a bee

08 August 2013 - 03:24 By David Isaacson
Chad le Clos of South Africa wins his semifinal in the men's 200m butterfly at the world championships in Barcelona last night
Chad le Clos of South Africa wins his semifinal in the men's 200m butterfly at the world championships in Barcelona last night

I spent nearly 20 years searching for South Africa's Muhammad Ali in the boxing ring, but I found him in the swimming pool instead.

If Chad le Clos had chosen pugilism instead of aquatics, the similarities would have been blatant.

Already he has proven that he possesses talent, heart, determination, sporting intelligence, charisma - and a penchant for showboating.

Le Clos, a fan of Ali, hams it up for the press at times, especially when his adrenaline is up.

In the mixed zone - the gauntlet of journalists through which all swimmers must pass to exit the pool deck - he was asked about one of his competitors at the World Championships in Barcelona last week.

Le Clos praised his opponent's abilities, described him as dangerous and then slipped into an impromptu shadow boxing routine as he added lightheartedly: "But I just wanna kill him."

He was perfectly amicable, mind you, and the journalists laughed. But deep down he probably meant it.

That's the competitive nature of a true champion.

Swimming is not conducive to trash-talking; many rivals are friends. There's no room for making up poetic predictions of doom for your foes, as Ali used to do with frightening accuracy.

But Le Clos knows exactly how his races will unfold.

That's how he sank Michael Phelps - the world's greatest swimmer of all time - by five-hundredths of a second in the 200m butterfly at the Olympics last year.

With Phelps retired, Le Clos was peerless in the 100m and 200m fly races in Barcelona. His showboating proved this.

In the 200m semifinal, Le Clos did the unthinkable - he looked to his left and right on a single stroke! On two separate occasions! In the final lap!

He resembled a Wimbledon spectator, yet he still posted the fastest time.

In the final he looked around so often that on the penultimate lap he actually surrendered his lead and, despite doing that several more times in the final 50m, he still won by more than half a second.

Le Clos has justified lifting his head as a bad habit, or because he was worried about a swimmer in an outside lane.

I don't buy those explanations.

I reckon he was doing the aquatic equivalent of Usain Bolt turning to the main stand of the Bird's Nest several metres before crossing the finish line to win the 100m Olympic title in Beijing in 2008.

Turning his head is Le Clos's Ali shuffle.

It's as if Le Clos is taunting the field to catch him. But they can't - that's how good he is, and he's getting better.

At the 2014 Commonwealth Games he will reincorporate the 200m and 400m individual medleys into his race schedule, and he will surely add a fifth by the 2016 Olympics.

Don't be surprised if it's the 100m freestyle, swimming's blue-riband event. In the 4x100m freestyle relay heats here, Le Clos's split was the fifth-fastest of the 64 swimmers in that event.

Le Clos's prospects are bright; it's his turn to shine.