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Superstars Sun and Ye lead a fresh wave of swimming stars, writes Sun Xiaochen
It's always tough to pick the best sportsman and sportswoman in an Olympics year with so many golden performances. However, this year's vote might be easier for the selection panel as Chinese swimmers made history-making breakthroughs at the London Olympics, where they bagged 10 medals (five gold) to finish second on the table while also showing the world they are power to be reckoned with.
Delivering its best haul since its Olympic debut in 1984, the Chinese swimming squad drew the biggest spotlight in the nation's 38-gold London delegation and saw its crown jewels, Sun Yang and Ye Shiwen, nominated for multiple year-end awards, including the prestigious Laureus World Sports Awards (Ye for Breakthrough of the Year).
In a country where male success in mainstream events is rare, Sun's gold medals in the 400m and 1,500m freestyle events were inspirational.
Shattering his own world record by more than three seconds in the 1,500 free, Sun moved on to steer the men's team to a bronze in the 4x200m free, an achievement that almost equaled his unexpected silver in the 200m.
Sun's performances didn't escape the attention of swimming legends like Michael Phelps, who grabbed four more gold in London to bring his record count to 18.
"One of the most impressive (Sun efforts) was in the men's 1,500m free. He's so talented," said Phelps, who retired after the Games. "His stroke is perfect. His catch and kick, everything about his stroke is flawless. I think (coach Denis Cotterell) could still help him improve in the future."
Besides Sun, other male swimmers also showed stark improvement with Hao Yun finishing fourth in 400m free, Zhang Fenglin coming in fourth in the 200m backstroke and Chen Yin reaching the final in the 200m butterfly.
On the women's side, 16-year-old Ye's record-breaking victory in the 400m individual medley triggered a worldwide buzz as her powerful sprint over the final 50m was faster than male gold winner Ryan Lochte in the equivalent.
The teenager added another title in the 200m IM and smashed the Olympic record. Meanwhile, teammate Jiao Liuyang turned her Beijing Olympics' silver medal into gold in the 200m butterfly.
Finishing second to the all-powerful US team was a great result for China, but it wasn't all smooth sailing.
John Leonard, a US coach, was among pundits who alleged Ye's performance might have been due to doping, which spoilt Chinese celebrations somewhat.
However, Ye passed her tests and renowned figures came to support the Zhejiang native.
"(The suspicions) will always be there when you swim extremely well," Russia's four-time Olympic champion swimmer, Alexander Popov, said at the Games. "Just simply keep your head down, and keep training and keep producing results. I am sure Chinese swimming is capable of much more of what we saw here."
Australian world champion James Magnussen backed Ye as well.
"She's certainly a world-class performer and I think any time she dives in the pool there's a chance of a world record," the Shanghai Worlds' 100m free winner said.
"(This year) they had quite a few great performances at the Olympics. They had Sun as well, so, I think it's important for them and it's important to set a precedent for the future of swimming in China. They're certainly turning into one of the powerhouse countries at the moment."
Bigger splashes still ahead
A new generation, led by Sun and Ye, has stepped to the fore and it seems the best is yet to come for Chinese swimming.
Female teenagers Li Xuanxu (18) and Tang Yi (19) pocketed bronze medals in the 400 IM and 100m free respectively in London. They have joined Ye among the new generation of rising stars. That also includes 4x200m free final team member Wang Shijia, 19, and 100m backstroke finalist Fu Yuanhui, 16.
On the men's side, 17-year-old Hao moved on from the Olympics to claim the 400m free silver medal at the Istanbul World Short-course Championships this month to become the first male Chinese swimmer to finish on the podium in a 25m pool.
Jiang Haiqi, 20, and Li Yunqi, 19, members of China's 4x200m bronze team, are likely to improve further by training overseas — like Sun — next year.
Moreover, 21-year-old Sun said his full potential is yet to be realized and has set his sights on smashing his own mark.
"Possibly, I will refresh it (1,500m record) soon. I won't be waiting to do it at the next Olympics," he said after sweeping the 200m, 400m and 1,500m free events in meet record times at the Asian Championships last month.
"I know clearly where I am (in conditioning and skill level). I am on an upward path with room to be better. London was just the beginning. I will be at my prime in Rio (2016)."