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Olympic Champion’s Return Is Coming in Darker Times for His Family

Chad Le Clos’s father, a bear of a man, emerged as one of the indelible figures of the 2012 Olympic swimming competition without getting wet — unless, of course, you count his tear-stained face after his son upset the two-time defending Olympic champion Michael Phelps in the 200-meter butterfly.

Bert Le Clos was an interviewer’s dream: unabashed and uncensored, a proud papa without a pause button. Le Clos joked that his father became more famous off his gold-medal swim than he did. Le Clos’s father plans to travel to Rio de Janeiro next month for Le Clos’s defense of his butterfly crown, but this time Bert, not Chad, is the one in a fierce battle against a formidable opponent.

Le Clos’s father learned he had prostate cancer last year. His mother, Geraldine, found out in May that the breast cancer she thought she had beaten a few years ago had returned. All this happened while cameras were shadowing Le Clos for a documentary, “Unbelievable,” which draws its title from the exclamation repeated over and over by Bert in the wake of his son’s star turn in London. His father’s diagnosis became a part of the narrative of Le Clos’s life story, which will premiere on July 24 and 25 on Le Clos’s website, www.chadleclos.com.

“It’s been difficult, obviously,” Le Clos said last week from Fort Lauderdale, where he is training before heading at the end of the month to Rio. He added: “Getting into the pool, I feel like I’m unshackling myself from the worry and the stress. Swimming definitely takes my mind off things.”

With a clocking from this past November, Le Clos, 24, of South Africa, is ranked third in the world in 2015-16 in the 100-meter butterfly, behind Hungary’s Laszlo Cseh and Phelps. He is fourth in the 200-meter butterfly — two spots ahead of Phelps — with a time he posted in June.

Their rematch is expected to be one of the marquee races in Rio. Phelps, who owns the world record in the event, qualified for his fifth Olympics last month. He said at the time that he was looking forward to trying to avenge his five-hundredths-of-a-second defeat to Le Clos in the 200 butterfly.

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“I’ve definitely thought about that race,” Phelps said at the United States Olympic Trials in Omaha. “I actually just watched that race for the first time not too long ago. I was so anti-watching that race because I just didn’t want to bring up the memories.” He added, “I think I’m a lot more prepared this time than I was last time.”

Chad Le Clos, who engaged Phelps, an 18-time Olympic gold medalist, in a battle of words last summer, did not churn up the waters last week, offering praise instead. “I have much admiration and respect for Michael,” he said. “What he has achieved is remarkable, to say the least.”

Le Clos said he is in much better shape than he was last summer, but he is more aware than ever that there is only so much he can control. His parents’ bouts with cancer have made these Olympics both less and more important. Le Clos wants desperately to swim well in Rio, but it will mean everything to him to have his parents and three siblings (an older sister and brother and a younger brother) at the Summer Games with him. Gone are the days when he took his parents’ support for granted. “We have to play it week by week,” he said.

Le Clos expects his father to be ready for his close-up in Rio, and to hold nothing back. “He’s the same person on camera that he is at home,” Le Clos said before amending himself. “He’s toning it down when he’s on TV,” he said with a laugh.

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