Sun Yang: China’s King Swimmer
At the Budapest 2017 FINA World Championships in July, Chinese swimmer Sun Yang won his first title in men’s 200m freestyle with a time of 1:44.39 to record his groundbreaking victory, beating the Asian record of 1:44.47 he set in 2013. Also in Budapest, he claimed
the men’s 400m freestyle title for the third consecutive time.
Sun took gold in the 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle before his 200m triumph at the Worlds. And the swimmer is already the Olympic champion in the 200m, 400m and 1,500m freestyle.
The Lows of Sun’s Life
Only a year ago, Sun, whose performance at the FINA World Championships in Budapest stunned the world, was at a low ebb in his swimming career.
In early 2016, while training in Australia for the upcoming Rio Olympics, Sun suffered a fracture in his right foot. During a subsequent visit to doctors, unexpectedly, a new fracture was found. Only two months remained until the Rio Olympic Games, and those injuries haunted Sun’s Olympic journey.
Sun only finished second to Australian Mack Horton in the men’s 400m freestyle final, taking the silver. Before the swim, Horton accused Sun of being a “drug cheat” as they prepared to face off in the 400m final. Both physical and psychological blows knocked Sun down to a low point in his life. He even began to consider retirement.
Horton’s remarks resulted from a doping test Sun took in May 2014. When participating in that year’s Chinese National Swimming Championships, the record-holder tested positive for the banned stimulant trimetazidine. But in a hearing organized by the China Anti-doping Agency in July 2014, Sun provided sufficient evidence including his personal medical history and doctors’ prescriptions to prove he was prescribed the drug to treat heart palpitations he has suffered since 2008. Sun also admitted that he was not aware that the drug had been added to the 2014 prohibited list of the World Anti-doping Agency (WADA). Since Sun did not intend to cheat, he only received a three-month ban.
However, Western opinion, which tends to observe China’s sports with tinted glasses, wasn’t satisfied with the threemonth ban and had much to say. Just before the 2017 Budapest FINA World Championships, Mack Horton taunted Sun again just like at the Rio Olympics. However, since losing to Sun in the 400m freestyle in Budapest, Horton quieted down and pledged to let the issue go.
Honing His Skills
Sun’s success comes from tireless efforts and hard work. To prepare for the Budapest games, Sun engaged in special training sessions in China’s Kunming and Australia, which had become the routine for the prolific swimmer. During the final preparations, Sun stayed in Hong Kong for particularly intense training sessions he designed, which were added to his already packed “normal” training schedule. “Once, I wanted to get out of the pool, put on my clothes and leave the pool forever,” grinned Sun.
In the 200m freestyle race, the short distance makes starting and turning tech- niques even more important. Sun’s advantages in longer-distance swimming are reduced in the sprint. During his training in Australia, Sun worked endlessly on his start, lowering his head even later, “sliding” for more time in the air, and optimizing the angle of entrance. Improved starting and turning techniques enabled Sun to make new breakthroughs in both the 200m and 400m races.
Sun, who already dominates the 1,500m freestyle, was bold enough to change his techniques to improve performance. The Budapest race validated his efforts with fruitful results.
Not Just Gold
Sun is much more than China’s gold medalist swimmer.
Ten years ago, China’s swimming was so weak it was ignored by the international sports community. Asian swimmers had seldom excelled in international competitions. For a long time, international swimming medals were “monopolized” by the United States and Australia.
At the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games, Australian swimmer Ian James Thorpe won three gold medals in “shark skin” suits, tight-fitting covering designed to imitate a shark’s unique, sandpaper-like skin. Studies found that the high-tech suit could reduce water resistance by 3 percent. Over the next eight years, 15 of 16 new world swimming records were accomplished by swimmers wearing “shark skin” suits.
During this era, only Australian Grant Hackett’s 2001 world record of 14:34.56 in the 1,500m freestyle remained unbroken. Ten years later, however, the revered 1,500m freestyle record was broken by Sun Yang.
At the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai, then 19-year-old Sun competed in the 1,500m freestyle and finished in 14:34.14, breaking Hackett’s world record by less than a second. Only one year later, at the 2012 London Olympics, Sun shattered his old record with a new time of 14:31.02. Renowned retired Russian swimmer Alexander Popov commented that Sun’s achievement had a great significance not only for China, but for the whole world.
Three years from now, at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it would be hard to imagine anyone in the pool older than Sun. Will he be able to break the world record one more time? Only time will tell, but a diligent athlete like Sun deserves respect regardless of any honors.
August 27, 2017: At the opening ceremony of the 13th National Games of China in Tianjin, Sun serves as the flag-bearer. IC
July 25, 2017: At the Budapest 2017 FINA World Championships, Sun Yang won the men’s 200m freestyle with a time of 1:44.39 to record a groundbreaking victory and beat the Asian record he set in 2013. VCG
July 23, 2017: Athletes compete at the men’s 400m freestyle final at Budapest 2017 FINA World Championships. VCG