Chad le Clos had promised to “be back” to his best in the 200m butterfly semi-final on Tuesday, and the South African star was true to his word as he stormed to victory to qualify for Wednesday’s final.
The 29-year-old, who has four Olympic medals to his name from London 2012 and Rio 2016, was nearly knocked out in the heats as he finished fifth on Monday.
But his time of 1:55.96 was just enough to secure the 16th and last spot in the semi-finals.
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After seeming to concentrate too much on Hungarian favourite Kristof Milak in the heat, Le Clos adopted an entirely different strategy in Tuesday’s semi-final, swimming his own race.
Drawn in lane eight, he went out fast and flew into a massive lead of nearly nine-tenths of a second over Belgium’s Louis Croenen after 50 metres with a 24.45 split.
Le Clos increased his advantage by the 100m mark to almost two seconds over Croenen, and it was a similar lead after 150m over Chinese Taipei’s Kuan-Hung Wang.
But one wondered whether the Durbanite could keep up the pace all the way to the finish. Le Clos, feeling the pain from his fast start, slowed down significantly over the last 50 metres and looked to his left a few times to see whether the rest of the field were closing in on him.
They did make up most of the gap, with Hungarian Tamas Kenderesi producing a 29.38 split in the final 50m, but it was not enough as Le Clos won in 1:55.06.
Kenderesi finished second in 1:55.17, with Tomoru Honda of Japan third in 1:55.31.
But Le Clos had to wait for the second semi-final to know for sure whether he had made it through to the final, especially with Milak heading up that race.
The Hungarian favourite duly won his semi-final quite easily in a superb time of 1:52.22, which wasn’t far off Michael Phelps’ Olympic record of 1:52.03.
Le Clos, though, reached the final as the third fastest qualifier, behind Milak and Leonardo de Deus of Brazil (1:54.97).
The 21-year-old Milak is almost a sure bet for the gold medal in Wednesday’s final (3.49am SA time), but all Le Clos wanted was to be in the mix. Now he ‘has a lane’, and will hope that his experience will count for something as he chases a fifth Olympic medal.
Men’s 200m butterfly final qualifiers (3.49am SA time on Wednesday)
1 Kristof Milak (Hungary) 1:52.22
2 Leonardo de Deus (Brazil) 1:54.97
3 Chad le Clos (RSA) 1:55.06
4 Federico Burdisso (Italy) 1:55.11
5 Tamas Kenderesi (Hungary) 1:55.17
6 Gunnar Bentz (USA) 1:55.28
7 Krzysztof Chmielewski (Poland) 1:55.29
8 Tomoru Honda (Japan) 1:55.31
1 Chad le Clos (RSA) 1:55.06
2 Tamas Kenderesi (Hungary) 1:55.17
3 Tomoru Honda (Japan) 1:55.31