BEIJING // A string of world-class times from a band of talented teenagers at the national championships over the last week could be the first signs of a new wave of top Chinese swimmers emerging for the London Olympics. China's first generation of world class swimmers burst on to the scene at the 1994 world championships in Rome, where Chinese women won 12 of the 16 gold medals up for grabs and went on to set a number of world records, before being discredited by the doping scandals that followed.
Despite the setback, some Australian and American coaches predicted a battalion of Chinese swimmers would emerge from secret training camps in time for the 2008 Olympics but that never materialised. China won six swimming medals at the Beijing Games but just one gold contributed to their table-topping haul of 51 medals, that won by Liu Zige in the women's 200 metre butterfly. Although Liu, 21, missed the five-day national championships in Shaoxing, which finished on Monday, there was no shortage of women's talent on display in the small city in Zhejiang Province.
Li Xuanxu, 16, set the best time of the year in women's 400m individual medley as well as world-class times in the 400m and 800m freestyle despite complaining of illness before the meeting. Jiao Liuyang, the 19-year-old who finished runner up behind Liu in Beijing, grabbed the year's best times in the women's 100m and 200m butterfly, while 14-year-old Ye Shiwen won the 200m individual medley with the second-fastest time of the year. Yao Zhengjie, the national team head coach was as happy as Chinese coaches ever admit to being, especially since the times were achieved without wearing the controversial polyurethane suits which were banned in January.
"The results of the swimmers were not surprising. I am happy that they did better than last year's national games," he told Beijing Youth Daily. "Firstly, in this transition year the swimmers are not at their top form. Second, without the polyurethane swimsuits the swimmers felt themselves heavier in the water." Zhang Lin, the world champion in the 800m freestyle, was the best man on show, winning three titles with a world's best time of the year in the men's 400m freestyle.
The 23-year-old declared himself "90 per cent" happy with his performance and said he had benefited from the training he recently underwent in the United States. "The overseas training was visibly effective; he has made obvious improvement in the combination of speed and endurance," Chen Yinghong, his coach, told China Sports Daily. Far from locking up their elite swimmers in secret training camps, China is now planning to send more athletes abroad to benefit from different coaching methods.
"It will be a precious opportunity for them to train abroad," said Zhang. "The improvement of a teammate will push everybody. It indicates that Chinese men's swimming is gradually rising." * Reuters