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Hopes Rest on a Talented Few
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China's swimmers are hoping to make a splash at the upcoming World Championships in Melbourne, and they know they'll have to beat the world's best to win gold.

A record national delegation of 45 athletes will compete from March 17 to April 1, but hopes are pinned on just a handful of athletes.

"Wu Peng and Zhang Lin are the favorites to win a gold in the men's team, while for the women, Qi Hui is the best bet," head coach Zhang Yaodong told Titan Sports.

China's men's swimmers have never won a gold at a world championships or Olympic Games, and if Wu is to end the jinx in the 200m butterfly he must beat World No 1 and record holder Michael Phelps of the United States.

Wu edged Japanese rivals to claim gold at the Doha Asian Games in December, and his time of 1:54.91 was the second fastest of last year, behind only Phelps.

Phelps then turned up the pressure with a world record time of 1:53.71 seconds at the Missouri Grand Prix swimming meeting last month.

"He (Phelps) is up there for other swimmers to catch. His best time is almost one second faster than mine. At the world championships, I will try my best to cut the deficit," said Wu, whose recent training has been interrupted by a stomach injury.

Another name to watch is fast-improving distance freestyler Zhang Lin.

The 19-year-old outshone American Olympic medalist Klete Keller in the 400m freestyle at the Pan Pacific titles in Canada last August, but suffered a setback when he was beaten in the 1500m freestyle in Doha by South Korean Park Tae Hwan.

In the women's side, world and Olympic champion Luo Xuejuan's retirement came as a major blow to squad short on world-class talent, leaving hopes resting on Qi Hui.

Triple winner at the World Short-Course Championships in Shanghai in April and in Doha, Qi will compete in 200m and 400m individual medleys, as well as the 200m breaststroke.

Qi ranks third in the world in 200m breaststroke, but she must beat record holder Liesel Jones, who will be given added motivation by competing in front of her home crowd. The dominance of Jones has led some experts to think Qi would be better off concentrating on medley. 

The long-term absence of Yana Klochkova of Ukraine means the medley crown is up for grabs. Japan's Maiko Fujino had the fastest time in the world last year, 1.42 seconds ahead of Qi, but in the Asiad Fujino settled for third place, a massive 4.39 seconds behind Qi.

"My aim at the worlds is to get the best result," Qi told Titan Sports.

The bulk of the women's team is made up of youngsters and their primary focus is to gain experience, according to team management.

The Chinese team won one silver medal and four bronzes at the last World Championships in Montreal, Canada in 2005.

The Godmother

In the synchronized event, all eyes will be on China's performance following the appointment of respected Japanese coach Masayo Imura.

Her hiring at the end of last year was a huge event in the sport, but with her contract expiring after the Worlds she must deliver a good performance if she is to stay on until the Beijing Games.

"Right now, I am fully concentrated on the Chinese team," Imura told Titan Sports.

Imura, who also coaches synchronized swimming in Japan, arrived in Beijing last Monday and will stay until the end of the tournament.

The 56-year-old - dubbed "The Godmother" - has helped the Japanese team to three gold, one silver and four bronze medals at the Asian and Olympic Games.

"If she can lead the team to a good result, we will definitely extend her contract until 2008," Yu Li, director of Water Polo and Synchronized Swimming Department, was quoted as saying.

Imura said she still needs time to get her message across to the swimmers.

"It is still a short time since I started training the team. I have no idea how well the team will do at the Worlds.

"Our aim in Australia is to show how Chinese synchronized swimmers are performing on the major world stage. We have to try to impress the people in the field and set a solid base for the 2008 Beijing Olympics."

(China Daily March 13, 2007)

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