In an Olympic swim meet that has so far been most notable for who hasn’t been topping the podium—perennial champions like Michael Phelps of the U.S., Australia’s Stephanie Rice, and Kotsuke Kitajima of Japan, who all suddenly look old and slow—there is only one story people are talking about. Sixteen-year-old Ye Shiwen of China, who has not only emerged as the fastest woman, but is piling up times that put most of the men to shame.
In the 400m individual medley finals on Saturday night, Ye powered to gold in 4:28.43, shaving more than a second off the previous world record, and shattering her own personal best by a full five seconds. More astounding still, sitting second to American Elizabeth Beisel as the race entered its final 100 metres, Ye turned on the jets and left the reigning world champion flailing for the silver. The 16-year-old’s splits for the freestyle leg—29.25 for the first 50m, then 28.93 for the last length of the pool—were not only way faster than any of her competitors, they were faster than anyone in the men’s 400m IM. Ryan Lochte of the U.S., considered the best all-around swimmer on the planet at the moment, swam his last leg 0.17 seconds slower on the way to a gold.
Yet Ye didn’t seem that excited by her crushing victory. “There is much room for improvement,” she told reporters. “It’s true for breaststroke I am lagging behind, but I think my freestyle result is also not that good. Usually I’m very bad at turning. This is one of my worst basic skills, but turning is a very important skill, therefore I was practicing my turns before the competition.”
In the heats for the 200m IM this morning—an event she won at the world championships in Shanghai last year—Ye looked awfully impressive, qualifying first for the semis with a time of 2:08.90. Ahead by almost a full body length during the breaststroke, she again pulled away over the final freestyle leg to best Kristy Coventry of Zimbabwe, who won a silver in Beijing, by more than 1.5 seconds. It’s almost like Ye has a propeller.
This dominance is of course raising questions. After all, the Chinese swim program has a long history of doping, with 40 positive tests during the 1990s alone, and another 16-year-old, Li Zhesi, being caught for the blood-booster EPO this past spring. Ye has never failed a test, and Chinese officials have expressed annoyance that the issue is even being raised. She is, they say, a product of a program that now identifies talent at an extremely young age and nutures it along. In Ye’s case, it was her kindergarten teacher who guided her toward the pool after noticing she had extremely large hands for a five-year-old.
The rising Chinese power in the pool will be an issue for Canada as the swim meet continues this week. Ryan Cochrane’s toughest competition in the 1500m Freestyle is Sun Yang, the 20-year-old who beat him out for gold at the world championships in Shanghai. There, Sun shaved 0.42 off a world record that had stood since 2001, and no one even came close to touching in Beijing when swimmers were still allowed to wear those full-body shark suits.
Whatever the Chinese are doing, it’s working.