China on the top of the world

Shanghai 2011 - Swimming

It all started with Diving. Today, only open water swimming is missing. In the mid-80s, China’s emergence in Aquatics debuted with their first stars in Diving, a discipline in which the Asian nation rules until the present day – in Shanghai, they have swept all the 10 diving titles on offer! Then, at the beginning of the 90s, came Swimming, with the first World Championships’ medals appearing at the 1991 FINA World Championships in Perth. By the time of the Beijing Olympics in 2008, Chinese Synchronised Swimming appeared at the highest level and at these home championships, China obtained an unprecedented set of seven silver medals in the discipline. As far as two/three years ago, Chinese women’s Water Polo started to be feared by the traditional powerhouses in the game, and in Shanghai, the host nation is for the first time in the final of the women’s tournament. The weakest link remains Open Water Swimming, where China’s best results in Shanghai were an eighth place in the 5km Team Event and an individual 12th position in the women’s 10km race.

Coming back to Swimming, China’s tally debuted in 1991, with six awards (all women) in Australia, but the 1994 (19 medals) and 1998 (six medals) successes were severely tarnished by the doping cases involving Chinese athletes. The lessons of the scandal were assimilated by the responsible of the Swimming teams, and things came back to normal in the following editions of FINA’s major event. In 2001, in Fukuoka, the Chinese delegation got seven medals, repeating the feat in 2003. The first male podium finish came in 2005 in Montreal (where a total of five awards were obtained by China), and two years later, the Asian squad appeared very shy in Melbourne (just two medals - many saying that it was part of a strategy to “hide” their assets for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing). Finally, in 2009 in the Eternal City, China confirmed the good shape demonstrated at the “Water Cube” (six awards) and amassed a total of 10 medals. Except the 1994 “deviation”, the 10 podium finishes of Rome 2009 remain the best result so far for China at FINA World Championships.

Statistics are about to change in Shanghai. After Day 4 of the Swimming programme (with four more to go), China has already collected eight medals (three among men and five in the women’s field), including three gold, one silver and four bronze. This time, things are clear: China will appear in force at the 2012 Olympic Games in London (GBR) and strong traditional nations in the discipline will have to count on China’s power.

The latest success of China in the pool happened in the men’s 800m free, where 19-year-old Sun Yang clinched the gold in 7:38.57, leaving the 2008 silver medallist in the 1500m, Canada’s Ryan Cochrane in second (7:41.86), and Hungary’s Gergo Kis with the bronze (7:44.94). It was Yang’s second medal in Shanghai, after the silver in the 400m free; in 2009, in Rome, he had been bronze medallist in the 1500m free. For Kis, it is the first success at this level. The (disappointing) surprise of the final came with the fourth place of Oussama Mellouli (TUN), the 1500m Olympic champion and silver medallist two years ago in the 800m. His 7:45.99 effort in Shanghai is over 10 seconds slower than his personal best (7:35.27)!

“I swam according to my own rhythm; from start to finish I was very smooth. I hope in the future I can do even a better job. After this meet, I may change some training patterns in order to recover better. Since Rome and the Guangzhou Asian Games, I have been training a lot so maybe in the future I will lighten my training a little. At the end of this year, I will still go training abroad for three months in order to get my expected result for London 2012,” considered Yang on his effort in Shanghai and ambitious plans for next year’s Olympics.

The second Chinese achievement of the day came with the bronze medal of Wu Peng in the men’s 200m butterfly, in a time of 1:54.67. The race was dominated and won (1:53.34) by the favourite Michael Phelps (the North American is the world record holder and Olympic champion in the distance), who conquered his fifth world title in this event – after 2001, 2003, 2007 and 2009. At the same time, it is the first gold of these championships for the best swimmer in history.

“I’m super happy with swimming faster than I did last year. But I still want more in that event and I want to be faster. That was a little too close for my comfort. The 200 fly has been part of my programme for so many years; we sort of build my whole career around that event. I don’t want to lose that race again. Having a number of defeats this year was very frustrating for me and I didn’t like the feeling. I wanted to have the feeling of winning a race again. It feels good to win a race,” considered Phelps after his win. And he concluded: “I hopefully will be competing in this event in 2012”.

If for Wu, this medal is something new at FINA World Championships, the silver of Takeshi Matsuda (JPN, 1:54.01) is an upgrade from his bronze finish two years ago in Rome (the Japanese swimmer is also the current Olympic bronze medallist in the event). “I think I could have got the gold. I was very confident going into the race. In the last 50m, I was getting tired and I saw that Michael Phelps was catching up,” commented Matsuda on his race.

Michael Phelps (USA) &Takeshi Matsuda (JPN) - Credit: Giorgio Scala

In the women’s 200m free, Federica Pellegrini (ITA) wrote a new page of history in these championships, by winning the women’s 200m free in a time of 1:55.58. After her victory in the 400m free in Shanghai, she is the only women in history to have conquered two consecutive titles in both distances at FINA World Championships (after her successes, at home, at the Rome 2009 edition). The Italian “Diva” made a very prudent race, touching respectively seventh, fifth and third at the 50m, 100m and 150m, before applying her traditional “sprint” in the last leg.

“This victory means a lot to me. It’s a reconfirmation after Rome and these two gold medals were actually a very good surprise. It’s a good stepping stone for the future,” considered Pellegrini. “Of course the preparation is based on London; the main goal is to win a medal in the 200m and 400m free,” revealed the Italian champion.

Kylie Palmer (AUS) got the silver in 1:56.04 – her first success at this level -, while the bronze went to France’s Camille Muffat (1:56.10). Muffat was also third in Shanghai in the 400m free. The silver medallist in Rome 2009, Allison Schmitt (USA) was only sixth, and Femke Heemskerk (NED) paid a high price for her initial acceleration (she concluded in seventh).

In the last final of the day, the 2009 Rome silver medallist Felipe Silva (BRA) had his revenge and conquered this time the gold in 27.01. The winner two years ago, South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh, was not so good in Shanghai and swam for the bronze in 27.19, being narrowly beaten by Italy’s Fabio Scozzoli (silver in 27.17). The Italian is one of the revelations in Shanghai, after getting also the silver in the 100m breaststroke. The second deception of the day for USA came from Mark Gangloff, third in Rome 2009, and only sixth this time (27.58).

“Since the beginning of the year, our training has been based on winning the hundredths of a second or the centimetres that can make the difference in a race. We try to reach perfection and the hard preparation is the key for success,” admitted the Brazilian, who missed on Day 1 his qualification for the final of the 100m breaststroke. “Sometimes, we must accept that the worst defeat can be our best victory. See what happened with me: I was devastated after the 100m and today I won!” concluded a very philosophical Felipe Silva.

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