Swimmer leads China’s assault at championships in Hungary
China’s Sun Yang, the enfant terrible of competitive swimming, is set to undergo another test of his fragile temperament at the world championships after a turbulent 2016 Rio Olympics.
Likewise, there will be nowhere for Joseph Schooling to hide in Budapest this month after he stunned Michael Phelps to win Singapore’s first-ever Olympic gold last year.
Once called a bad boy, Sun spearheads China’s assault and will be looking to exact revenge after Australian Mack Horton robbed the hulking Chinese star of his Olympic 400 meters freestyle in Brazil.
Emotions boiled over after a pulsating final in Brazil when Horton branded Sun a “drug cheat” — a reference to a three-month doping ban his rival served for taking a banned stimulant Sun said was for a heart issue.
The pair traded insults, triggering a row with Chinese media, before Sun bounced back to win gold in the 200m.
Expect sparks to fly again in Budapest with Sun and Horton set to lock horns in the 200m and 400m, as well as the 800m and 1,500m freestyle — events Sun has dominated in recent years.
“As captain of the Chinese swimming team, I need to shoulder more responsibility,” the multiple Olympic and world champion told Xinhua news agency.
“I must encourage my teammates, help them steady their mood and lead them to make breakthroughs in the world championships.”
A notable absentee for China is Ning Zetao, who is not in the Hungarian capital to defend his 100m freestyle world crown, citing an abdominal injury after failing to make the grade in qualifying.
Xu Jiayu will compete, however, after taking Olympic silver in the 100m backstroke behind American Ryan Murphy.
Schooling’s stunning Rio victory over Olympic legend Phelps — who dead-heated for silver with Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh — in the 100m butterfly final puts him firmly in the firing line in Budapest.
But the 22-year-old clocked 50.96 seconds in Austin, Texas earlier this month, just 0.09 off American Caeleb Dressel’s world-leading mark, to suggest he could be peaking at just the right time again.
“Caeleb has the fastest time this year but I am not going to let anyone take that top spot from me,” Schooling told reporters.
With Phelps ending his storied career in Rio, Japan’s Kosuke Hagino has been tipped to take over as the world’s premier medley swimmer.
The 22-year-old won gold in the 400m medley in Rio but was beaten by the American in the 200m final.
Whether or not he can convert Olympic gold and silver into double gold in Budapest could depend on countryman Daiya Seto, who has had Hagino’s number in recent domestic competitions.
Seto, who took bronze in Rio over 400m, is chasing a hat-trick of world titles in the longer medley after capturing gold in Barcelona and Kazan.
Japanese schoolgirl Rikako Ikee, a five-event national champion, is another name to watch in the freestyle and butterfly.
The pressure will be on 25-year-old Chinese swimming giant Sun Yang, pictured training on Australia’s Gold Coast last month, when he again locks horn with Australian Mack Horton in the men’s 400m freestyle at the World Aquatics Championships in Budapest on Sunday. Sun lost to Horton in the event at the Rio Olympics but bounced back to win gold in the 200m.