Zhang Lin answers questions from the press after failing to qualify for the men's 50m freestyle final at the national games qualifying tournament in central China's Anhui province September 23, 2012. [Photo/icpress]
Chinese swimmer Zhang Lin's career has fallen from heaven to earth over the past four years, but he remains upbeat just as long as he can still power down a pool's lane.
Zhang, who became the first Chinese man to win a world championship - in the 800m freestyle in 2009 - saw his career hit bottom after failing to qualify for the finals of the 100m and 200m freestyle events at the National Championships in Zhengzhou, Henan province, last week.
While the crowd and media were concerned about his drastic loss of form, the 26-year-old remained calm and optimistic, going straight to the TV cameras and signing autographs after the losses.
The 26-year-old said he won't give up swimming, although he's no longer among the nation's elite.
"Winning the glorious world championship and finishing 55th (in 200m) here are equally precious experiences, which I will cherish," Zhang told China Daily beside the warm-up pool on Friday. "To be able to stand here and race again, I already feel satisfied and I won't ask for more. I've passed my prime to compete against others who are red hot, and I feel happy to just race against myself."
"Sooner or later, that day (to retire) will come, but not now. I still enjoy swimming, just as much as I did at a very young age. I would have quit (from swimming) much earlier if I really wanted to."
The first major signs that Zhang's career was on a downward path emerged at last year's national trials, where the Beijing Olympic silver medalist in the 400 free failed to earn a ticket to London after finishing the 200m and 400m free events far off the qualifying standards.
"It felt like the sky had fallen apart and I suddenly lost the goal and motivation in my life," said Zhang, who took a break from the pool after the Olympics.
"The gap from the valley to the peak was too steep for me to accept. I was beat up."
After missing out on a trip to London, Zhang became depressed. He stayed out of the limelight and spent many a sleepless night wondering why he was unable to deliver in competitions any more.
Keen to rediscover his form, Zhang left Beijing for California last October to practice with renowned US coach Dave Salo, the man behind the success of US Olympic champions Jessica Hardy and Rebecca Soni, for three months.
Due to a lack of fitness, Zhang spent two of those months simply trying to get back in shape and only had a month of systematic training, which was less than ideal.
Although he did little of consequence in the pool, the US trip inspired him to be more mature when facing adversity.
Zhang ventured to California with his own crew on a previous visit in 2010, but chose to fly solo last year.
He went to the market, cooked for himself and even ate microwave dumplings to save money for a physio as he received limited funds from the sport's governing body after failing to achieve elite results in recent years.
"Results are everything (in sports) in China," Zhang said.
Chinese butterfly swimmer Wu Peng, who trained in the US while Zhang was there, understands the challenge of training and living alone abroad.
"It's tough, especially for him as he had to come down from the top," Wu said. "He undertook a lot pressure and I tried to encourage him."
Living a simple but busy life in the US, Zhang slowly emerged from the mire of self-doubt.
"I cleared up my mind and figured out that I could still have goals near the end of my career."
Apparently, Zhang's motivation now is to pass on his experience to the youngsters.
After completing his races in Zhengzhou, Zhang was often seen around the practice pool, instructing junior swimmers or assisting coach Chen Yinghong in timing at practices.
"His presence will help to motivate the boys and girls in our team. He is a veteran and we trust him," said Liu Xunlan, the Bejing team's leader.