A young man knows his time has come, he appreciates he has become uncomfortably famous, when a stranger requests an autograph in a toilet. "Are you the swimmer?" a man asks in a South African club and Chad le Clos grins and said yes.
Hygiene be damned, he must have signed. And shaken hands. Because on Monday he shook everyone's. First the photographer's. Then the cameraman's. He's normal, he's nice. Till he puts on goggles and tilts on the blocks and dives over your dream.
Le Clos swims the butterfly, which is a cruelly misnamed stroke. Butterflies are gentle, they flutter and float; butterfly swimmers are violent and rise out of the water like prehistoric beasts. Which is what le Clos resembled when he chased down Michael Phelps at the London Olympics. He worshipped Phelps and yet he planned his demise. Only in sport is humiliating your hero in public a cherished proof of talent.
Le Clos is having the time of his life. He can't walk unmolested down South African streets. He's won sporting awards ahead of rugby players and cricketers, the reigning deities of his athletic nation. "I can't lie, it's cool," he grins. He's turned swimming into the fourth-most popular sport in his nation. But he didn't change his nation because he won Olympic gold but because of how he won.
Over 300 gold medals were awarded in London, each one the same size yet metaphorically of a different weight. Some athletes win, others stand out. All have talent, some have superior timing.
You win a race by metres (Usain Bolt), finish faster than a man (Ye Shiwen) or do a Mobot (Mo Farah) and you stand out. It's what le Clos does, he writes not a statistic but a story. He's 0.58 seconds behind Phelps at the 150m turn in the 200m butterfly and Phelps doesn't lose when he's 0.58 ahead. Except Phelps doesn't know le Clos is feeling "pumped up, something I never felt before. One of those rushes that comes once every four years".
Le Clos defeats the greatest swimmer ever in his greatest event ever by 0.05. Heartbeat, eyelash, fingernail, whatever, it's enough time. This is not victory, it is an announcement.
It is also history, it's done. Athletes don't dwell too long on victory because it represents the past when in fact they live in a present and are in search of a future. There is no time to reminisce, only to push on. Their youth is short, their Olympics few.
So they swim miles every morning, like caged water creatures silently planning an escape. Some days le Clos will tell you "it's boring" like all jobs, some days like on Monday he's dreaming "of playing for Manchester United". But always he's pushing. Because he has a number of medals in his head he has to reach before he runs out of time. Because someone else, somewhere else, someone faster, someone slower, is also pushing. Hunger drives the athlete but so does insecurity.
Will his time be good enough? Today? Tomorrow? 2016?
Victory has altered the world around le Clos and people want his most precious possession. Time. Once a boy who chased sporting stars, he dislikes saying no and so his articulate coach Graham Hill must. Hill has changed around le Clos, too. He can't use Phelps as bait any more for he's not training a hopeful any longer, he's tuning a champion.
Le Clos has changed as well, he has to, for nothing stays the same in his world - not age, body fat, reaction time, turn speeds, world records. He is a man of varied parts, a champion who mingles with Boris Becker at the Laureus Awards, yet a boy who meets Phelps even now and says, "I kind of stop and stand up straight, it's still kind of that respect".
Swimmers almost appear addicted to pre-dawn wake-up calls and constant exhaustion and not everyone understands. A fellow once told le Clos, "you won Olympic gold, it's the ultimate, why are you still swimming?"
Because there are never enough medals, because there is no perfect race, because there is no time too fast, because chasing all this - even if you don't get there - is the appeal of the athletic life.
And so le Clos swims. Today. Tomorrow. Believing Phelps and 2012 was wonderful. But believing that in talent terms he has only broken the surface. The man who lives by the stop-watch is still to find his finest time.
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