Hill On Hurricane Chad’s Approach To A Busy 2014
At the American Swimming Coaches Association World Clinic in The Big Easy, New Orleans, Graham Hill, coach to Chad Le Clos and South Africa, says his charge’s defeat of Michael Phelps should be the beginning not the tail end of a storming career as he plots a multi-event 2014 season on the way to Rio 2016; plus, take the Chad Le Clos Challenge – how do you stack up doing his favourite two sets (see the foot of this article)?
If you happen to be in the Big Easy, always wise to heed any hint of hurricane warnings but the “watch for the next wave” we heard here at the ASCA World Clinic is of no threat to the average citizen of New Orleans. If you’re among those gunning for Glasgow in Scotland next year, best sit up and count the cumulonimbi on the way to the Commonwealth Games.
Think of it this way: coach Graham Hill sees Chad Le Clos’ defeat of Michael Phelps in the 200m butterfly at London 2012 not as the eye of a tropical cyclone but simply as the birth of one, the moment when warm, moist air rose upward from the ocean surface and flicked the switch to a swirl in world swimming.
“He doesn’t want to be known forever as the man who beat Michael Phelps,” Hill tells SwimVortex.com with a nod to his South Africa and Seagulls charge who stopped Phelps taking the triple in his signature 200 ‘fly by 0.05sec in London last year. “He needs to find his own ID, add a few more events and break a few world records. He needs to convert that moment [London 2012] into a starting point not an end point.”
If there are specific targets pinned to the Phelps posters that still have a place on Le Clos’ wall at home, we won’t hear about them until the box is ticked. Even so, not hard to imagine the 200m ‘fly as a constant bleep on the radar, especially since coach Bob Bowman bestowed honour and responsibility on Hill and Le Clos in the moments immediately after the London 2012 battle was done.
Bowman approached Hill on the burning deck at the Games and told him:
“Congratulations … look after the 200 ‘fly for us …”.
When Le Clos – on 1:52.97 as the fourth man ever inside 1:53 and one of only two men in textile, with the American world-record holder (shiny and matt), to have gone that way – claimed his first world title in 1:54.32 a few weeks back in Barcelona, the manner in which he approached the end wall was as big a part of the story as gold: he looked like an age-grouper turning his head to left and right to assess the progress of rivals, the notion of racing in his own lane rendered relative. Again, Bowman was on hand to offer congratulations.
Hill replied: “We looked after it for you but it wasn’t pretty.” Bowman retorted: “They not all of them are pretty.”
Phelps’s finish at London 2012 must have been as frightful to watch for Bowman as it was frustrating for the greatest himself, while gold in Beijing was won through the blur and risk of water-filled goggles.
Setting aside the shiniest of moments on the clock – the 1:51.51 world mark at the 2009 circus of 43 global marks in all over eight days in Rome – the towering swimming of Phelp’s career remains the world textile best: 1:52.09 at Melbourne 2007 world titles when the American’s skills led to the coining of a phrase by Australian Bill Sweetenham: the ‘fifth stroke’ had been born in the shape of devastating dolphin drives underwater out of starts and every turn. It set the tone for a new era in the sport.
Le Clos’s first time target is that 1:52.09, though he’ll doubtless also want to take a sword to all that was in Rome at some stage. Glasgow 2014 will come took soon, the point and purpose of the Commonwealth Games to extend the South African’s repertoire.
Where will the damage be done when the storm gathers momentum in Scotland next July? In stages, when prompted, a smile following each suggestion of promise packaged in questions from coaching peers from the floor in the Arcadia main hall at the clinic, Hill mentions the 100m free, 100 and 200m butterfly, 200 and 400m medley. In an interview with us after the second of his two presentations in New Orleans, he adds the 200m free to the count – the smile broader and accompanied by a short burst of laughter.
He’s not bluffing. Le Clos [photo: Aniko Kovacs] will race “at least four but probably five” solo events plus relays. The two butterfly and medley events come as little surprise: he’s done big multiple-event programmes before, the pre-Olympic season world cup stacked high with swims on all strokes and most distances on the roster as Hill helped him prepare to make the Olympics an ‘easier’ moment. In London, the 400m medley did not stack up as Hill wanted it and after 200m ‘fly gold, the next main aim loomed and the 200IM, after heats and semis, was dropped.
“After the 200m, I was expecting him to win the 100 ‘fly and we scratched the 200IM. I had that in mind but I let him swim the heats and semis to keep his mind off it,” Hill noted, the ‘it’ a double-edged sword of the focus required after a momentous gold and the steeliness needed in the 100m ahead, Phelps a swimmer who, even when the chips were down (relatively speaking), was never out.
The all-stroke potential remains: if Le Clos, a 2:16 200m breaststroke swimmer at 16, got down to a 2:13 or so – and a 1:10 split in a medley, as Hill believes he can, then the sums of serious threat stack up like those cumulonimbi on the way to Commonwealths. Aussie Thomas Fraser-Holmes holds the ‘regional’ record at 4:10.14, the club of sub 4:10ers still denied to the Commonwealth. “We were expecting a medal in the 400IM in London but his backstroke [he adds breaststroke, over 1:12, to the list later] and first-race nerves let him down.” said Hill of Le Clos.
Coach Hill notes Le Clos’ best times in 200m events, including around 2mins on 200m back (1:54 s/c, suggesting a 1:57-58 pace l/c under the right conditions) and 1:47 on 200m free. That still leaves him with work to do to match the combined bests of Kosuke Hagino (JPN), for example, but at Commonwealth level, he is surely in with a shout for the podium, at least.
Le Clos, who returned to training last Monday after a post-Barcelona break and three weeks out from returning to world-cup tour, has a good grasp on goal-setting, says Hill. The first chat that coach and athlete had in which ‘bating Michael’ cropped up was during the World Cup in 2011. “I said to him ‘I think you can win the 200 ‘fly [at London 2012]… you can beat him.”
It was in Berlin and Hill watched Phelps and concluded that “he was not the same Michael as I had seen in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008. I grew in confidence and believed that it was possible to beat him and I wanted Chad too understand that. He did.
“He always wanted to beat Michael after watching him in Beijing. It wasn’t a vindictive thing. Quite the reverse. There’s a huge amount of respect there. Chad’s still got Michael posters on his wall.”
But it is time to move on, time to establish an identity beyond “My brother The Phelps Slayer” as the younger Le Clos’ t-shirt declared. Brother Jordan is a fine swimmer, too, and has Hill there to remind him that a place at Rio 2016 means beating the bloke in the next room at home, Chad.
For Le Clos the Olympic champion, Hill’s message is just as stark: ” … work harder than ever because just as no-one knew you in 2010, you probably don’t know the person who’ll be the challenger for gold in Rio 2016″. After London, Le Clos went on celebrity tour and Hill had a hard time gutting him back in the swim. The biggest persuader, in the end, was sight of a domestic challenge on the rise: Myles Brown, who missed the cut for the Games, knuckled down to a hard distance programme in the weeks after London was done. “Chad saw Myles working very hard and I think that is what finally told him that he needed to get back into it and as soon as he could,” said Hill.
Brown is starting to reap the rewards of that hard work, while he and Le Clos will clash in racing over 200m freestyle over the next cycle, a challenge that Hill relishes as a way of driving both to a better place, with a view not only to Commonwealth solo honours but a shot in the 4x200m free for South Africa at some stage.
Asked what Le Clos’ success meant for South African swimming, Hill said: “What its done for us on our team is that it has rubbed off on our kids back home … hopefully it is going to bring a while new generation of swimmer through. Beating Michael and showing the world that it can be done by a South African has made it dangerous for Chad: there’s a new generation of swimmer that is not scared of anything: they’re bullet proof.”
Had Le Clos shown signs of greatness as a kid, asked on coach? “His father kept telling me he would be great,” said Hill to laughter. “For sure, he was a good sportsmen. But I was lucky because he had flat feet and couldn’t run, otherwise he’s have ended up in football.”
The other noteworthy aspect of Le Clos was that “he had a killer instinct to win … we developed his strokes but, yes, I saw something there … his will to win.” Hill noted that he had another swimmer at Youth Olympics beyond the man who is now that movement’s ambassador and bound for Nanking next year as a figurehead. But the other swimmer “came to me and said ‘I don’t want to do what Chad does to get there”, Hill recalled. That swimmer retired and will never be known far and wide, at least not as a swimmer.
Asked where the killer instinct came from, Hill believed that while the coach, parents, the support network of folk around a great talent, can “bring it out of them”, the truth was that “they were born with it”. He cited Phelps, Lochte and others and noted the importance of the strong bond, trust and relationship with their coaches, noting, too, the willingness of parents, such as Le Clos’, to support but not interfere.
The Chad Le Clos Challenge
(the swimmer’s favourite sets set by Hill, each one featuring once a week)
- 400 swim, 200 kick, 400 pull
- Main set:
- 16×50 reverse IM order
- Descending set x 4
- 400m medley on 5.30 (best h has managed to end on a 4:21)
- 8×100 free, paddles, on 1:15 (holding 58s)
- Swim down – various
- 1000m warm-up, various
- Main set:
- 16×100 butterfly (holding 1:02s)
- 4x200m backstroke (easy/hard) best: around 2:06
- 4x200m breaststroke (e/h) best: around 2:21
- 4x400m freestyle – holding 4:10s
- Rest relative to pace of recovery
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