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Not afraid to get back in the water

Comeback queen Ye Shiwen happy to have trusted her instincts following triumphant return to pool

By SHI FUTIAN | China Daily | Updated: 2024-02-15 09:34
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Olympic champion Ye Shiwen believes that the Hangzhou Asian Games was the start of a new chapter in her swimming career. XINHUA

What was your bravest decision in 2023? For Olympic champion Ye Shiwen, the answer was returning to the demanding world of elite swimming. While some wondered if she could even continue her pool career, the 27-year-old proved all the doubters wrong by reaching the highest step on the podium at last year's Hangzhou Asian Games. And Ye believes her triumphant return is just the start of a new golden chapter.

"In terms of how I handled everything mentally, I would give myself full marks for 2023. But physically speaking, especially in terms of swimming technique, there are still many things to improve. I think I could have performed better in many races," said Ye, who won 200m breaststroke gold in Hangzhou in September, during an exclusive interview with China Daily online show On Your Marks.

"At the start of 2023, my goal was clear — to return to the pool for the Hangzhou Asian Games. It offered me a chance to win gold at home, and I have achieved what we planned.

"How much further can I push myself in the pool? Right now I don't have the exact answer. Before returning this time, I was just thinking about the Asian Games at first, but after the journey to achieve my goal in Hangzhou, now I believe that the Asian Games can be the start of a new chapter in my career and I plan to keep swimming."

Ye was one of China's brightest swimming stars when she won the 200m and 400m individual medley gold medals at the 2012 London Olympics at the age of 16. However, the teenager struggled to maintain those exceptional standards in the ensuing years and failed to reach the podium at the 2016 Rio Games.

Olympic champion Ye Shiwen believes that the Hangzhou Asian Games was the start of a new chapter in her swimming career. XINHUA

In 2017, Ye decided to step away from the pool to focus on her academic goals at Tsinghua University. After a year, though, she put her law-school studies on hold and returned to the pool.

At the 2019 FINA World Championships in Gwangju, South Korea, Ye pocketed two silvers, but then missed the Tokyo Games. After the national games in 2021, Ye stepped away from the pool for a second time to resume her studies at Tsinghua.

"The pool holds a special attraction for me, and I think that's the charm of competitive sports. When I studied at Tsinghua, I just couldn't help but to come to the pool to swim for one or two hours a day. If I didn't, I would feel that something was not right," said Ye.

"There were pressures of schoolwork at university, and the best way for me to ease that pressure was to jump into the pool. When I was in the water, I just felt comfortable. It always feels like I enter a world of my own. And in that world I can fight to win something, and have that sense of achievement."

The encouragement of her coach, Wei Wei, helped Ye dispel her doubts and make a definitive decision to return to competition.

"At that time, she had not trained for over a year. I said to her that the Asian Games would be staged at home after her graduation. I asked her if she wanted to return to the pool again, and fight again for her dream. And in a way, she could contribute to her home as a Hangzhou native," coach Wei told China Daily.

"I always believed she has what it takes to be a top swimmer. She took some time to consider everything and we discussed things a little more, and then she made the decision to return. Initially, when she returned, we had the mindset of 'just give it a go'. But later on, it turned out that she regained her momentum."

Growing through study

Compared to when she won the Olympic medals a decade ago, Ye believes she has grown a lot to become a much more mature athlete. And she reckons her time at Tsinghua has been key to that.

"The best lesson that I ever learned at university was how to think independently. When I was younger, I didn't have to think about anything, as the coaches would prepare every training session and arrange all the races for me. All I needed to do was to follow and execute their plans," Ye added.

"But, at Tsinghua, I need to have the habit of thinking for myself. That is also crucial for me now in swimming. Now I think more about my own training plans, or what new tactics I can try. As a swimmer who is not that young, I need to think how to better adjust my body."

Life at Tsinghua, however, was not easy for Ye. To achieve better grades, she would record her morning classes and watch them again at night. She also managed to squeeze in one or two hours of swimming each day in order to maintain a basic level of fitness.

"We always kept in touch over the phone or through text messages when she was at school. I remember she told me that studying at law school was not like training in the pool, and it could be tough in a different way for her sometimes," coach Wei recalled.

"She told me that she needed to remember many things from her books and needed to watch recordings of her classes more than once to better comprehend them."

Coach Wei is confident that his student can succeed in many other areas away from the pool. He told China Daily that he will never forget when Ye first joined his team as a 6-year-old. Wei was deeply impressed by what he saw in the young girl's eyes — the determination of a future champion.

"When she was a kid, I used to always tell her that she had done a great job. But now she is too mature to need that kind of encouragement," Wei added.

"Now I always tell her not to set goals that are too high, and to not put too much pressure on herself. That she should just be happy in the pool. But, I know she wants to return to the top and prove herself once again."

Since starting her career in 2002 at the age of six, Ye has experienced peaks and troughs. By her own calculation, Ye told China Daily that she had spent 13,600 hours training in the pool over the past 21 years — and she's still not finished.

"Back in 2016 after the Rio Olympics, people suggested that it was maybe the time to quit. I did not have too many supporters around me telling me to keep swimming. But I just had that feeling that I still had what it takes to be at the top. So I kept returning," said Ye.

"Now, I meet a lot of swimmers who are a lot younger than me. Some of them were born in 2012, the year I won the Olympic gold. Looking at them, I think of the younger me. At their age, I was just fearless.

"If there was a time machine, and I could go back to meet the younger me, I would tell her to never fear defeat and to directly face up to your challenges, no matter what they are. And keep swimming, because this sport will bring you so many positive things in life."

Chinese swimming fans hope there are still more to come.

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