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'Breaststroke Queen' Luo Abdicates
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At 23 a swimmer should be entering her prime, but yesterday marked the retirement of China's Olympic and World champion Luo Xuejuan.

Speaking at a ceremony in her hometown Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, the "Breaststroke Queen" confirmed she had to leave the pool due to poor health.

"Life comes first. It is more important than other things," she said. "Everyone knows that I am a very competitive person, but I have no other choice than to quit the sport. I am so grateful for what the national team has brought to me in the past years. Now I am leaving. But as an Olympic champion, I hope I can do something else for the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. I also wish the national swimming team the best," she said. 

Luo, who has suffered from heart problems since the 2004 Athens Olympics where she claimed China's sole swimming gold and was seen as a medal hope for 2008, revealed she planned to study at Peking University.

Speculation on Luo's future had mounted of late, as stories of heart problems and disputes with coaches were plastered in the press. Just days ago, national team coach Zhang Yadong dismissed the reports of Luo's likely retirement.

Confusion reigned at the ceremony when doctors were unwilling to give exact details of Luo's heart problem.

A team doctor, Han, said only: "For an athlete there is a risk of danger. But for an ordinary person, there is no problem."

Luo fainted twice during the Athens Games, and doctors diagnosed her as having a potassium deficiency. However, problems continued, and after fainting during training last November doctors diagnosed her as suffering from either exhaustion or heart trouble.

"She failed to get fit. If she continues training, nobody wants to take the responsibility if there is a danger to her life," said Zhang.

An emotional Zhang, who witnessed Luo's development from a young hopeful into a star, was unable to control his emotions at the ceremony.

"It is so hard for me to say something about her retirement," he said tearfully. "We have been together for over ten years. We didn't want her to leave the pool."

"It is definitely a big loss to the sport in China," said Shang Xiutang, deputy director of the Swimming Administrative Center, at the ceremony. "Luo's absence will also effect our preparations for the Beijing Olympics. We are not willing to accept her retirement but we have to respect her decision."

Luo's decision will come as a crippling blow to the national swimming team's preparations for the 2008 Beijing Games, where at least one gold medal is expected.

Teenagers Ji Liping and Wang Qun are two athletes hoping to replace Luo as the leader in women's breaststroke.

Ji, 19, was crowned 50m breaststroke champion and finished second in the 100m at the Doha Asian Games, which Luo did not attend, while 16-year-old Wang scored an impressive win over Luo in the 2005 East Asian Games.

But their personal bests are still way behind Luo's, not to mention her world record-holding rival from Australia, Leisel Jones.

Luo has established herself as the most prominent Chinese swimmer in the world stage, winning one Olympic gold, five world championship titles and numerous Asian and national titles. To recognize Luo's devotion to the sport, the Swimming Administrative Centre presented her an award for her "Outstanding Contribution to Chinese Swimming".

Luo's factbox

Date of birth: January 26, 1984
Place of birth: Zhejiang
Weight: 62 kg
Height: 1.68 m
Coach: Zhang Yadong

High performances:

2000: Olympic Games -- 8th 200m breaststroke
2001: World Championships -- 1st 50m breaststroke, 1st 100m breaststroke, 3rd 200m breaststroke, 3rd 4x100m medley relay
2003: World Championships -- 1st 50m breaststroke, 1st 100m breaststroke, 1st 4x100m medley relay
2004: Olympic Games -- 1st 100m breaststroke, 4th 4x100m medley relay
2005: World Championships -- 5th 50m breaststroke

(China Daily January 30, 2007)

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