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Natural born swimmerYe Shiwen stunned the world at the London Olympics, causing some to question how she did it. But from an early age, she was picked out as a potential championKeith Zhai03 August 2012The teenage girl from Zhejiang province looked out over the pool from in front of Lane 5, her short hair tucked under a white cap.Ye Shiwen stretched her back and took a deep breath as she waited for the call to approach the starting block.A group of Chinese supporters were waving national flags and cheering.But few in the packed London Aquatics Centre could suspect that, within moments, the 16-year-old would become a national hero - and the subject of one of the biggest controversies at the Olympics.Ye won the 400 metres individual medley in a world record time of just over four minutes and 28 seconds, storming past American world champion Elizabeth Beisel in the final freestyle segment.Her performance was so commanding that she swam the last 50 metres of the race faster than American Ryan Lochte, 27 - widely considered the best all-around swimmer on the planet - in the men’s event earlier that day.The result drew cheers more than 8,000 kilometres away in Zhejiang’s provincial capital Hangzhou , where Ye’s parents stayed awake past 3am to watch the race.“I knew my daughter had a chance for gold, but I didn’t expect her to break the world record,” her father, Ye Qingsong, told state media. “The happiness comes quickly. It was like a movie to me.”But the controversy began almost as quickly as it took for Ye to complete her race.Immediately afterwards, American John Leonard, executive director of the World Swimming Coaches Association, told a British newspaper he found the result “unbelievable” and “disturbing” and raised the suggestion that Ye had taken performance-enhancing drugs. The suspicion was fuelled partly because Ye’s teammate Li Zhesi had, just months earlier, tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was banned from competing at the London Games.But Ye repeatedly denied the doping allegations and Leonard’s remarks drew an angry response from her father.A spokesman for the International Olympic Committee said it would have reported any findings from its rigorous drug-testing procedures and urged people to give athletes the benefit of the doubt.Three days later, Ye seemed to answer her critics by setting a new Olympic record while seizing her second gold in the 200 metres individual medley.She became China’s first swimmer to win two gold medals at one Olympics.People’s Daily added its weight to the rebuttals and suggested that suspicions over Ye’s achievements reflected broader Western ill-will towards the country’s rising strength.“This is not the first time that certain Western media have voiced unfounded suspicions about the outstanding performance of Chinese athletes. Deep-seated prejudice has led them into blind ignorance,” a commentary in the newspaper said. “Naysaying by a handful of people will not ruin China’s image and nor will it hold back China’s advancement.“Maligning the reputation of Chinese athletes and upsetting the competitive performance of China’s young sporting stars at the London Olympics is really a miscalculation.”Some of Ye’s supporters accused her detractors of racism, saying that far from appearing out of nowhere, she was the world champion in the 200 metres medley last year and had been an emerging star for years.And Xinhua published a statement from the Chinese Swimming Association, which said their swimmers took part in more than 2,500 drug tests last year. No positive results were found.“China’s recent breakthroughs in swimming are the results of scientific training and hard work,” the statement said.“Ye Shiwen has been consistently training in swimming since she was six or seven years old.“Her outstanding performance was not out of the blue.”
Prominent state-television sports anchor Han Qiaosheng said he watched the 200 metres medley in awe and had to wipe tears from his eyes. His voice cracked during the broadcast.“She made history and proved to the Western media that she’s clean,” Han said.Standing 1.72 metres tall and weighing 64kg, Ye a has better power-to-weight ratio than most of her rivals. Also noteworthy are her size 10-1/2 feet, which coaches say enhance her strokes.Those who watched Ye’s development say they knew from early on she would be capable of great athletic achievements.She started swimming at the age of six and parents and coaches at her Hangzhou sport school quickly noticed her body seemed ideally suited for the pool.Ye’s profile page on the Olympic website said she took up swimming in 2003 in Hangzhou, after her kindergarten teacher noticed she had large hands.Ye’s first coach, Wei Wei, told mainland media she could still recall the first time she saw Ye swim.“Ye was different. Her athletic ability was especially strong compared to the other children,” Wei said. “Her hands and legs were very big. Fundamentally this is a big advantage. She is a natural born swimmer.”Ye’s father said he sent her to swimming school because he wanted her to learn a useful skill and burn up some of her surplus energy.He told the Youth Times in Hangzhou: “Ye had short hair and was a naughty girl when she was in kindergarten.”Wei recalls that Ye spent much of her time in the water.While most of the children were being lazy at the swimming class, she was self-motivated and always finished her assignments.“She worked hard,” Wei said. “If I assigned her to swim 10,000 metres, she would not swim 9,999 metres.”By the age of 11, Ye had been chosen for Zhejiang’s provincial swimming team. She was added to the national team the following year.Ye Qingsong recalled that around that same time, in 2008, his daughter looking upset during a visit home one weekend. She was quietly stewing after losing to a teammate the previous day.After leaving much of her dinner on the plate, she walked over to the balcony and yelled: “I will beat you next time!”Her father told NetEase, a mainland news portal: “She never gives up. She didn’t come home for another month after that until she had fought back.”In 2010, Ye won a national swimming competition and started training in Australia under coach Ken Wood, whose academy in Brisbane has trained many members of China’s national team, including world record-holder Liu Zige.Ye quickly began chalking up victories, winning three events at the 2010 Swimming World Cup in Beijing.But it was at the Asian Games that same year that Ye started to attract real public attention after recording the fastest time of the year in the 200 metres individual medley.Ye told mainland media after the race that winning “was not easy” and was possible only because of her intensive training.She had reportedly taken just five days off from training during the previous seven years.“I have to keep training,” she said. “It was hard and sometimes I couldn’t take it, but then I’m thinking about my family. I’m fighting for a better life for my family, so I have to endure all the hardships.“My goal in the coming two years is to win at the London Olympic Games,” she said, before turning to the camera to say: “I love you, mum and dad”.Like many Olympic athletes, Ye comes from a modest background. Her family reportedly still lives in a small, two-bedroom flat.But her circumstances are likely to change dramatically after winning her Olympic golds.The central government is always proud of China’s sporting achievements and rewards its champions.State-run China Daily said Ye could receive up to one million yuan (HK$1.23 million) in national, provincial and local prize money for bringing home gold. That total could increase if she signs advertising and sponsorship deals.
Renowned Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang and basketball player Yao Ming have each gone on to become national heroes. China Sports Daily said that following Ye’s success in London, all the children’s swimming classes in Hangzhou were now fully subscribed.Ye became a poster girl for the national team soon after Li Zhesi was banned in the run-up to the London Games. People’s Daily described Ye’s rise as “rocket-like”.In the face of such fame, it might be easy to forget that Ye is still just 16.Out of the pool, she likes to read detective novels and shop online.She likes roller coasters and her father has promised her take her on a long-awaited trip to Hong Kong Disneyland to celebrate her win.Ye’s mother, Ding Yiqing said her daughter, who she calls “Little Ye”, is turning into a young woman and was reluctant to cut her hair before the Olympics.“She recently started to read fashion magazines and cares about her looks,” Ding said.“Little Ye is a well-behaved girl. She always listens to me and her father.”Ye was so nervous before the preliminary rounds of the 400 metres medley that she called her father for comfort, according to Xinhua.“Dad, I’m so nervous,” she said. “I’m so afraid about the race tomorrow. What if I can’t make it to the final?”Her father told her not to worry. “You’re the youngest of all the swimmers tomorrow,” he said.“There is no need to worry because you have nothing to lose. You just have to be yourself.”Additional reporting by Reuters
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