Primed to make a splash

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A hungry young Chinese swimming squad will bid to emerge from the shadow of the Sun Yang controversy and reboot the national program at the Tokyo Olympics.

The squad arrives in the Japanese capital without clear gold-medal favorites or any Olympic winners among its ranks after three-time champion Sun was last month ruled out of the Games by a four-year ban for doping-control violations.

Led by women's butterfly sprinter Zhang Yufei and men's backstroke world champion Xu Jiayu, the fresh-faced squad still possesses enough talent to make a strong impression on the biggest stage and kick-start a new era for Chinese swimming.

Zhang Yufei of Jiangsu competes during the women's 100m butterfly final at the 2021 Chinese National Swimming Championships in Qingdao, east China's Shandong Province, May 2, 2021. (Xinhua/Xu Chang)

Two-time Olympic women's individual medley champion Ye Shiwen and 50m freestyle Asian-record holder Liu Xiang also miss Tokyo 2020 after they both failed to regain top form during the extra year's wait for the Games due to the pandemic.

Among China's 30-strong team, the smallest since the 2000 Sydney Games, Zhang has emerged as the most promising title contender. The 23-year-old owns this year's world-leading time in the women's 200m butterfly-2 minutes and 5.44 seconds, recorded at May's national trials.

Hali Flickinger of the United States is the only other woman to crack the 2:06 mark this year after posting a personal best of 2:05.85 at the US Olympic trials last month. Flickinger and 2019 world champion Boglarka Kapas of Hungary, the event's third fastest swimmer this year, are expected to be Zhang's main rivals for gold in Tokyo.

Zhang has also been lighting up her lane in the 100m butterfly, after clocking 55.62 in a heat at last year's national championships to set the world's fastest time for the 2020-21 season.

Busy schedule

However, a demanding program that will potentially see Zhang compete in five events, including freestyles and team relays, could prove draining.

The unpredictable nature of Olympic swimming, especially in the sprint disciplines, also adds to the magnitude of Zhang's task, former men's world champion Zhang Lin reckons.

"Zhang Yufei has been consistent at the top level, but in sprint events there is no margin for error," Zhang Lin, who won men's 800m freestyle gold at the 2009 world championships, said during a preview program on Tencent Sports on Monday.

"There is more pressure physically and mentally at the Olympics, where you have to go all out in every session from heats to the finals, than at the national meets. So it's definitely not a guarantee for her to win, even though she's the hot favorite."

China's distance freestyle duo of Li Bingjie and Wang Jianjiahe are also eyeing medals, in the 400m, 800m and 1500m races, having competed fiercely against each other at domestic meets. However, they will be up against five-time Olympic champion Katie Ledecky of the US.

The 19-year-old Wang clocked a personal-best 8:14.64 in the 800m and an Asian-record 15:55.59 in the 1500m at the 2019 and 2020 national championships respectively, and is rated Ledecky's closest challenger over both distances.

Li, also 19, has signed up for all four individual freestyle events in Tokyo. As the third fastest swimmer (4:02.36) in the world over 400m this year, behind Ariarne Titmus of Australia (3:56.90) and Ledecky (3:59.25), Li has high hopes of making the podium in Japan.

"Having intense internal competition in the team always suits each swimmer to push for extra improvements," Qian Hong, winner of the women's 100m butterfly at the 1992 Barcelona Games, said of the rivalry between Li and Wang.

"That's how it has worked for our previous champions for years and I hope they will benefit from the battle to shine in Tokyo."

Xu grit

On the men's side, Sun's absence has left backstroke star Xu as China's sole gold-medal hope in Tokyo. The two-time 100m world champion (2017-19) is feeling the pressure of competing in multiple individual and relay events.

However, the Rio 2016 silver medalist is determined to go one step better in Tokyo, inspired by the memory of his late coach, Xu Guoyi.

"I feel like I've grown a lot since he passed away … my form was affected more or less, but eventually I realized that the best way to pay him back is by standing on top of the Olympic podium," the 25-year-old said of Xu Guoyi, who died in July 2020 of brain cancer.

The highly respected coach guided Ye Shiwen to women's 200m and 400m IM titles at London 2012, and before his untimely passing had declared that his career goal remained to help more Chinese pool stars to Olympic glory.

As this year's fourth fastest (52.35) swimmer in the 100m back, Xu will face stiff competition from Russia's season-leading Evgeny Rylov (52.12) and longtime American rival Ryan Murphy to get among the medals in Tokyo.

In the 4x100m mixed medley relay, a team comprised of Xu, Zhang Yufei, women's freestyler Yang Junxuan and men's breaststroke specialist Yan Zibei set a world-record 3:38.41 at the national championships in October.

As a result, they start as hot favorites in the event's Olympic debut, but can expect strong challenges from the US and Australia.

The nine-day swimming program will be staged from July 24-Aug 1 at the Tokyo Aquatics Center.

Chinese swimmers have won 13 gold, 19 silver and 11 bronze medals at previous Olympics, and in Tokyo the team expects to at least surpass its one-gold total (won by Sun in the 200m free) from Rio.

Meanwhile, Sun, who consistently pleaded innocent throughout his doping case, last month claimed he has not given up hope of reviving his career in time for the 2024 Paris Olympics.

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