Le Clos out to topple Phelps
Durban - For Chad le Clos, Michael Phelps is a friend and an inspiration. Inside the pool, however, the young South African will just be another swimmer trying to spoil his mentor's Olympic farewell.
The 20-year-old Le Clos is nowhere near being the No 1 challenger to Phelps at the London Olympics. That will likely be Phelps's main rival, Ryan Lochte.
But after Le Clos won five medals at the 2010 Youth Olympics - where Phelps was an ambassador - and outswam the 14-time Olympic gold medallist and everyone else to win last year's short-course World Cup series, the youngster believes he can beat anybody. And "anybody" includes Phelps.
"I love racing and I love competing against the best. I don't want anybody to be sick on the day, I don't want to shy away from any challenges," Le Clos said recently in an Olympic promotional video. "I hope everyone is as fit as they can be."
Despite a desire to make waves at his first Olympics, Le Clos is the obvious "underdog," he said. He's clearly still impressed by his idol, too. Almost in awe.
But maybe Phelps recognised potential in the South African, who is now expected to be a medal contender in London after winning a Commonwealth and world short-course title.
On the World Cup series last year, Phelps congratulated Le Clos on his performances and passed on a few tips. For Le Clos, that was "awesome" coming from someone the South African says he "knows everything about."
"I was shocked that someone like him was coming up to congratulate me," Le Clos told The Associated Press. "I was really stoked about that because obviously he was someone I looked up to my whole life. I wouldn't have expected that from someone who is a legend."
The pair spoke regularly on the series after that and went out for dinner, where Phelps dished out some more valuable advice. They met up again this year to shoot an Olympic commercial in Miami. They also keep in touch on Twitter.
"People were screaming for him and going crazy," Le Clos said of the Miami meeting, still star-struck by Phelps. "I wanted to be like him, pretty much."
Yet Le Clos has his own ambitions for his Olympic debut in London and success could come, he realises, at the expense of Phelps in what's expected to be the American's last games.
Le Clos' events, the 100- and 200mbutterfly and 200 and 400 individual medley, are all Olympic titles held by Phelps from his record-breaking haul of eight golds in Beijing. They also could go up against each other in the medley relay.
Still, Le Clos has no issue balancing an ultra-competitive edge with his respect for the world's most successful Olympian. He reckons Phelps "probably isn't worried about me," but the desire to make his mark is clear.
"When I'm racing I believe I can beat anybody, whether it is Michael Phelps or Ryan Lochte, whoever is there," Le Clos said in the interview with the AP in his home city of Durban. "Trying to spoil the party (for Phelps in London), it's really difficult to say right now. But I think if you had to ask me that in the heat of the moment, before my race, I would probably say yes. I'll be going for it."
Le Clos is an outsider for an Olympic gold, but his rapid progress over the last two years caught the attention of the International Olympic Committee and president Jacques Rogge as well as Phelps.
He was picked by the IOC as one of four athletes from the Youth Olympics in Singapore to look out for in London and has featured on promotional material in the run-up to the 2012 Games.
"(It's) a nice story," Rogge said of the relationship between the two swimmers at opposite ends of their careers. "But in London in the pool, everyone starts on the same footing. There will be no role model any more at that time. It will be competitive."
An immediate impact at the Olympics would continue a rapid climb for Le Clos after being picked to represent his country at the 2009 world championships when he was only 17. It was there he first saw Phelps compete.
"I was like, 'Wow, Michael Phelps,'" he said.
Le Clos also won five medals at the 2010 Commonwealth Games as a teenager, picking up gold in the 200 butterfly. He won the same event at the short-course world championships in Dubai that same year.
And if there's one race and one way to announce himself at the Olympics, it's in his favourite event - and hopefully against his favourite swimmer.
"The 200 fly is something I'll be looking forward to, racing Michael Phelps," Le Clos said. "He's going for his third Olympic gold, three times in a row in the same event, so the first man that stops him will be (a) legend."