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'I was a shell of a man': Chad le Clos on trauma, Michael Phelps, and finding a new purpose

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'I will always want to beat Phelps' - Chad le Clos (2:10)

South African swimmer Chad le Clos says he's never had a problem with swimming legend Michael Phelps, and that sport is not personal to him. He just wants to win, even against his friends. (2:10)

South African Olympic champion swimmer Chad le Clos said earlier this month that 2021 was the worst year of his life, when a traumatic event, which he won't reveal the details of, sent him spiralling into the darkest place he's ever been.

Le Clos told local publication New Frame that a singular incident that happened to him in January last year was "worse than my parents having cancer" and affected his entire year, including a poor performance at the Tokyo Olympics, where he failed to reach the final of the 100m butterfly, and came 5th in the 200m.

Now, 18 months later and thanks to continued therapy, both from a sports perspective and personally, and help from friends like American swimmer Tom Shields, Le Clos says he is feeling nearly back to his old self. That is, the guy that beat Michael Phelps to butterfly gold at London 2012.

Le Clos spoke to ESPN about his long year of mental health recovery, the importance of seeking help, his 'rivalry' with Phelps, and how he still wants to be, and beat, the best in the pool.

ESPN: Were you correctly quoted in the New Frame piece when they wrote that you had described what happened to you as worse than your parents having cancer? [Both Chad's parents had cancer during the buildup to the 2016 Olympics]

Le Clos: Absolutely. It [the incident] was worse for them too. I've never been a guy that makes excuses. Unfortunately, something happened to me last year and it was the worst seven or eight months of my life from January onwards. It was just a tough time because it was completely outside of swimming, and it was something that I didn't realise that I was battling.

[Even though] I was in the hole, I didn't realise I was in the hole. You know what I mean? I was dealing with a lot of different stuff. Obviously, COVID didn't help. Preparation [for Tokyo] wasn't aided by that because we didn't have a lot of facilities to train. Nothing was going right in my life.

This thing that was hanging was there, it was very difficult to manage and deal with. Thankfully, everybody's good and I've got my health back and I'm happy to be here speaking in a positive frame of mind. That's the main thing.

ESPN: Will come a time when you will be able to share the story with your fans?

Le Clos: I don't know. Right now, it's definitely to my very close [circle]. My friends don't know about this. It's only really family or people who I consider family. It was a very hard time. I'm speaking to you from a place of good mental health and I'm happy and in a good place. Last year, I was not the same Chad le Clos that I am today.

I only realised that last year right after the Olympics, in September or October. That's when I was in my darkest place and I couldn't really be alone, you know. I didn't really know what depression was because I'm not a depressed kind of guy; I'm a happy guy. I'm a positive person - I think I am, right?

Looking back, I was just a shell of a man, even at the Olympic Games. I'm a very positive person and I wasn't able to tap into that. When I walk out for an Olympic final, I'm ready to go, I'm ready to die [to win]. [In Tokyo] I'm walking out there and I've got no nerves. I'm walking out there and I'm not feeling anything -- zero, nothing. It just felt numb. Maybe the fans didn't help -- there were no fans in the stands -- but there was no gees [spirit, or energy in Afrikaans].

To be honest with you, my dad begged me for months to speak to someone. I never spoke to anyone -- the first time I spoke to anyone was September last year, so I went through this all by myself. My dad, my mom, my family -- obviously, [I was] sharing [with them] and stuff like that, but it wasn't the same. You have to get professional help. I'm a professional athlete, right? Even if I wasn't, it's something that I'd recommend for everybody.

READ: ESPN's coverage of Mental Health Awareness

ESPN: Yeah, it's like, I can't coach you swimming. You need a professional swimming coach and you need a professional therapist.

Le Clos: It's so important. I felt myself being super lonely, super down on myself, and super sad. I usually play PlayStation to escape from the world. That would be my escape and I'd be happy for those moments. But I couldn't enjoy PlayStation for a whole year. I couldn't enjoy anything, because I felt that something sucked out all the happiness in me.

I was just sad all the time, you know? I started having really bad thoughts and I was like: "S---, man, this is not good." That's when the penny dropped and I went to seek some help after months of my dad begging me. The one time I never listened to him, that's what happens.

ESPN: Are you able to shed light on some what you've learned in therapy that may have helped you earlier in your life, had you known it?

Le Clos: The main thing for me was realising that just being able to talk to someone that's not your family or your friends helps a lot. Just being there [in therapy] every two or three days.

When I first started talking to someone, I had a couple of things I needed explained to me, like: You have a valley, right? Every day, you have a little bit of pebbles that go inside -- just daily stress, girlfriend, boyfriend, family stuff, whatever it is, work. Every now and then, you get a little stone. Maybe once every couple of months, you get a boulder or two.

What he said with me was: "Your valley just got full. You have too many boulders and once it overflows, you start to think with the emotional side of your brain, not the logical side." I kind of understood that very quickly and realised that's what happened. You don't realise you're going to a dark place until you're in it.

I think it's very, very important to take the first step. [Now I see] a sports psychologist every two weeks, just for a touch-up. I'm really good where I'm at right now, thankfully.

ESPN: Had you seen sports psychologists before, throughout your career?

Le Clos: Not really. The first sports psychologist I spoke to was after the [Rio 2016] Olympics. I never really wanted to. I felt like I was weak for talking to a sports psychologist, but then I realised very quickly how he actually benefitted me through the back end of 2016, where things also, funnily enough, weren't in the best place. It seems to happen to me in Olympic years...

ESPN: Do you look back on your rivalry with Michael Phelps differently at all, and maybe with a different perspective on why things worked out the way they did [in Rio], with more understanding of Phelps [given his own struggles with depression]?

Le Clos: Absolutely. Just to set the record straight: I never had any problem with Michael Phelps. He was a huge inspiration. I loved the guy, worshipped the guy, growing up. We had a rivalry, absolutely. Things got said in the media that shouldn't have been. They were very, very twisted. He and I maybe never saw eye-to-eye for a small amount of times, but as a competitor and an athlete, I can only say good things about him as a warrior.

I didn't know that he was going through the struggles that he went through. I do think that our struggles were completely different. I think his came from different circumstances, and so did mine.

But absolutely, I look at them in a different perspective and think: 'Things may not have been as they seemed back in the day,' now that I've experienced certain issues, but I still believe everyone's story is different.

ESPN: Did you guys ever have a conversation about it, or did you move past it without ever mentioning it?

Le Clos: Sport, for me, has never been personal. I will always want to beat Phelps. He will always want to beat me. That's just how it's going to always be. I'm always going to want to beat Caeleb Dressel, Kristóf Milák.

László Cseh is a perfect example of that. When he beat me in 2015 -- the first time I'd lost since London at 200m fly -- me and László have been friends for a long time. He's a legend, also a huge inspiration to me. After that race, we invited him for dinner and he couldn't believe it. He even said: 'I was shocked. I thought we wouldn't be friends because I beat you.' I said: 'Brother, you can beat me forever. You will always be my friend, it doesn't change anything. When I get on the block, I want to kill you, I want to beat you, but it's nothing personal. I trust that whether you win or I win, it's just sport.'

With Phelps, I think things get said out of place. At the end of the day, I'm an athlete. I'm a sportsman first. I will shake anybody's hand regardless of what has happened, whatever has been said. There's nothing that was said that was too personal, I believe. You're going to have to ask Phelps how he feels, but from my side, I always will respect him tremendously and I'll always look up to him.

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1:26

Phelps won the race he wanted in beating le Clos

T.J. Quinn and Wayne Drehs break down a successful Tuesday for Michael Phelps in Rio by winning two more gold medals, including beating rival Chad le Clos in the 200-meter butterfly.

ESPN: Do you feel that your priorities in life have changed as a result of what you've been through?

Le Clos: Absolutely. I've got a different respect for mental health now and a different understanding. [US swimmer] Tom Shields, my buddy, he wouldn't mind me saying this, I'm sure, but he had his part with depression and mental health issues.

His wife [Gianna Shields] -- we're all very good friends -- she saw me and she was like: 'Something's wrong with Chad. He's depressed.' This is what he told me. When he said that to me, I was like: 'Mate, come on. I'm fine bro!' Eventually, I opened up to him -- well, not really opened up to him about what happened, but I opened up that I was in a really bad place and I really thank him for that.

Every decision I made was wrong. My space senses were completely off. Usually, my instincts are really good in sport and life. If I was supposed to go right, I went left. If I was supposed to go straight, I went back. You know what I mean? I think it's important to remember that these things happen to people on a daily basis and you have to get help.

Unfortunately for me, the spotlight was on me. It was the 'biggest moment of my life'. Olympic Games, right? I had the weight of the nation on my shoulders, the spotlight, the pressure, and I'm going through all these demons. At the end of the day, people don't care, right? When the history books are written, they're going to say Chad came fifth at the Olympics. He got gold in London, second in Rio, fifth in Tokyo, right? In 20 years' time, they're not going to say that this [trauma] is what happened, so you feel alone, because it's all or nothing unfortunately.

ESPN: Was there a specific moment or technique that started your recovery?

Le Clos: Honestly, I was low for so long, from January 'til January, then I started coming right. I was at the World Championships in Dubai in December last year. I hadn't properly trained since May. I've got this knee injury on the daily and I'm sitting in Dubai in a world of pain. I say to my dad: 'Dad, I think I have to come home'. He says: 'Son, I'm booking you a flight now.' He books me a flight home and I promise you this, I don't know if it's a sign, but I go on Instagram and I see the medal count for short course worlds and I see Ryan Lochte [24] medals, right? I see Chad le Clos on 16, 17, 18, right? I go: 'Am I only six behind Ryan Lochte? Oh my God. I know I'm in a bad spot, but if I pick up a bronze medal next week or in two weeks' time, that's going to help me one day...'

That's the only reason I stayed. I saw that and thought: 'I've always wanted to leave a legacy.' That's when I started to think: 'I'm five medals away from being the greatest short-course swimmer in history. That's it!' I went there. I got a bronze, I got a silver, I nearly won the 100 fly. I was 0.16 [seconds] off being world champion in my darkest place and I was so proud of myself for kind of pushing through that moment, but if that Instagram feed never came through, I was actually on the flight the next day.

I'm actually smiling now to think when I get to finally say I have the most medals at short course history, I'm going to go back to that moment and remember I nearly went home but I didn't.

ESPN: So now, when you have a really dark day, what is the number one thing you would remind yourself of?

Le Clos: My dad said to me after 2016, because I was absolutely down in 2016 when I got two silvers and I came fourth in the 200 fly, "Chad, would you rather have had mom die of cancer this year or would you rather have had two Olympic golds?" I said: "I'd give you all my Olympic medals back to give my mom another chance.'"It puts things into perspective, right? Health and family always come first.

I'm always going to be a fighter; I'm always going to try my best to be the best I can be, but at the end of the day, [in] sport, you're always going to win or lose. I'm still going to have my family, I'm still going to have my friends, I'm still going to have the people that actually care about me, whether I win or lose. That's what's important to me, because at the end of the day, there's a lot of people that are there for the good times and the minute you don't win or the minute things go wrong, they're not there. That's when you know who they are.

I definitely have a different respect and different perspective on life after going through everything. It's made me realise that there are bigger things to life than even your job, right? This happens to people on a daily basis. Just seek help.