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Rising tide

By SUN XIAOCHEN | China Daily | Updated: 2023-08-01 08:51
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Team China swim coach Cui Dengrong poses with Qin Haiyang and Zhang Yufei as they show off the medals they won at the World Aquatics Championships in Japan. TANG YANJUN/CHINA NEWS SERVICE

China's swim stars look to Paris 2024 with renewed confidence after stunning campaign at world championships

After collecting its best world championships medal haul in almost 30 years, the Chinese swimming squad's blend of youth and experience is shaping up to be a winning combination at next year's Paris Olympics.

Forget about Sun Yang. China's new generation of pool contenders have emerged from the shadow cast by the controversial former Olympic champion, with their scintillating performances rebuilding the team's confidence at the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Japan.

Led by newly crowned "breaststroke king" Qin Haiyang and reigning butterfly queen Zhang Yufei, the Chinese swimming team left Fukuoka with five gold, three silver and eight bronze medals — its best haul at the worlds since the 1994 edition in Rome, where Chinese swimmers scooped 12 gold medals (19 total).

The rise of world-class speedsters, led by Qin, junior world-record holder Dong Zhihao and freestyle sprinter Pan Zhanle, has helped turn things around on the men's side since three-time Olympic champion Sun's four-year suspension. The ban, imposed in early 2020 for a doping-control violation, took a heavy toll on Team China's medal prowess on the international stage.

Sun, the winner of all three freestyle disciplines across two Olympics (London 2012 and Rio 2016), has repeatedly declared his innocence during the protracted legal dispute, which ended with the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling in February 2020 that he was guilty of refusing to cooperate during an out-of-competition drug test in September 2018.

To the excitement of Chinese fans, Qin has emerged as the nation's new "Aquaman" to cheer on at next summer's Paris Games after completing a golden sweep of all three breaststroke events at the worlds in Japan.

"I said that my pre-race target was to win three breaststroke gold medals and I am so proud that I did," Qin said after breaking the men's 200m breaststroke world record in 2 minutes and 5.48 seconds to win his third individual gold on Friday, adding to his 50 and 100 titles.

Australia's Zac Stubblety-Cook had to settle for silver after finishing 0.92 seconds behind Qin, with the United States' Matt Fallon taking bronze in 2:07.74.

The 24-year-old Qin insists that his best has yet to come.

"These gold medals can be a burden if you always think you are a world champion. I will treat every race as a new start and a new challenge, because my rivals are also improving," said Qin, who made his Olympic debut at Tokyo 2020 but was disqualified in the heats.

"I think I still have room for improvement. This is only the first step of my campaign preparing for the Paris Olympics."

Qin, who also helped Team China clinch the mixed 100m medley relay gold on July 26, narrowly lost out to France's Leon Marchand in the vote for the best male swimmer award at the championships.

Marchand, also a three-time individual gold medalist, was favored largely because he reset legend Michael Phelps' 15-year-old world record in the men's 400m individual medley (4:02.50).

With reigning Olympic 200m butterfly champion Zhang also in her prime, the Chinese swimming squad will be aiming to surpass its best Olympic haul of five gold medals (London 2012) at the Paris Games.

"I think this year's world championships have shown that collectively we have a much-improved team now with all the younger teammates progressing so fast," Zhang said after clocking 24.12 to win bronze in the women's 50m freestyle on Sunday to wrap up her Fukuoka campaign with five medals.

Swedish great Sarah Sjostrom finished first in 23.62 ahead of runner-up Shayna Jack of Australia in 24.10.

"I actually didn't execute all my coach's pre-race instructions to perfection, especially in the final sprint. This shows where I can still push for refinements and improvements," said Zhang, who also won two golds (100 butterfly and mixed 4x100 medley relay) in Fukuoka.

Zhang admitted that the evergreen Sjostrom has been her idol through the years, and now she's motivated to challenge the all-conquering Swede again in Paris next year.

"I think now she knows me well. I had a great chat with her before the final. I told her that she's been my favorite sprinter in the world while she said I looked cute and swam extremely well," Zhang said after clocking an Asian record 25.05 to take silver in the 50 butterfly, 0.28 sec behind Sjostrom on Saturday.

The 30-year-old Sjostrom cemented her legacy on Sunday by winning a record 21st individual world championships medal (50m free) to surpass Phelps' tally of 20.

Anchored by Qin and Zhang, Team China also looks more competitive than ever in relay events, with a devastating blend of veterans and newcomers.

Boasting youth in Qin and experience in two-time world champion backstroke specialist Xu Jiayu, the Chinese men's team, which also features freestyle phenom Pan, sprang a surprise to pocket silver in the 4x100 medley relay on Sunday. That was China's best-ever result in the event on the world stage as the quartet clocked an Asian record time of 3:29.00.

The United States stormed to gold in 3:27.20, with Australia completing the podium in third (3:29.62).

"I was very excited to race in the relay," said Qin. "Everybody is close to their physical limits on the last day of competition. It is amazing to get the silver medal."

Teenager Pan can now be considered Asia's best freestyler thanks to back-to-back fourth-place finishes in the 100m final at the worlds, and he represents an intriguing prospect at Paris 2024 in the highly competitive men's sprint event.

"I am treating these world championships as a learning curve. My goal is to push harder in every detail for the Paris Olympics," said Pan, who swam an Asian record 47.43 to finish fourth in Thursday's 100 final.

"Next time I will come back stronger," added Pan, who turns 19 on Friday.

With a dominant campaign from its diving team, China topped the overall medal table at the World Aquatics Championships, which also include artistic swimming and high dive, with a total of 20 golds.

The next edition of the championships will take place in Doha, Qatar, in February 2024.

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