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China's Ye Shiwen (right) celebrates with teammate Li Xuanxu after winning the women's 400m individual medley and setting a world record at the London Olympics on Saturday. Li won the bronze medal. Cui Meng / China Daily
While most Chinese Olympic champions train at unfathomably high levels, Ye Shiwen is a little more fortunate.
The new women's 400 individual medley world record holder stole the limelight on Saturday with a time of 4 min 28.43 sec. And, by the way, she's only 16 years old.
As quiet as any other high school girl, how is it possible Ye has already achieved so much? Is she another product of China's State-run factory?
The international media has been asking that same question. Time Magazine and the (London) Guardian just unveiled stories highlighting some of the Chinese athletes' long road to London.
"I am not a robot. I am a lucky girl. I don't need to practice over and over every day," Ye said at a news conference.
According to Time, 30 members of the Chinese weightlifting squad have to repeat their routines six days a week in a pungent gym filled with sweat and chalk as they prepare for the Games.
Most of the lifters resemble workers in a factory, with little passion for their sport.
British diving star Thomas Daley recently told the Guardian that his Chinese rival Qiu Bo performs as flawlessly as a robot on a conveyor belt from the medal machine.
His remarks prompted curiosity about China's traditional means of cultivating athletes, as well as the system's tough requirements in practice.
Some though, like Ye, don't consider it too difficult.
"My training program is intense but scientifically arranged as well. I don't need to spend long hours in the pool every day, and it's not overly demanding for me," said Ye, who was sent to Australia twice for advanced training before the Games.
The same question was posed to young shooter Yi Siling, who claimed the Games' first gold medal in the women's 10m air rifle on Saturday.
"I spent a lot of time with the team, but I actually practice two hours every day - not as much as people might think," she said of her reported six-hour daily drills.
Still, hard work is part of the deal.
Ye hailed Sun's 400m free gold as a major milestone for Chinese swimming, but was just as impressed by his work ethic.
Sun also attributed his success to a lot of sweat.
"All the hard work in the past two years finally paid off, so I am too excited (to contain my emotions)," Sun said while weeping in the mixed zone.
The view from the top has been changing as well.
Shifting its attention from the medal haul to athletes' well-being after retirement, the governing body in China is looking to fine-tune its system, cutting short training sessions, making them more effective, adding education programs and importing help from the West.
"It's the time for a reform of our talent cultivation system. We have to replace the old, highly demanding methods with a smarter, more scientific approach," said Sports Minister Liu Peng.
Ye says she's not done yet
Although she's already broken the 400 IM world record, Ye Shiwen thinks she can still do better.
"I feel like I still have room to improve my stroke," Ye said. "I've strengthened my backstroke and butterfly, so I am getting better at the start. But I am still young and have some more potential in my body."
Given that the event is usually a lead-up her favorite event - the 200 IM - her future does indeed appear bright.
Ye's current time of 4 min 28.43 sec is nearly seven seconds faster than she clocked at last year's world championships, where she won the 200m title.
"I dreamed of winning the gold medal, but I never ever expected to break the record. So I am overwhelmed," she said.
(China Daily 07/30/2012 page10)