She stands in the mixed zone of the Olympic pool looking broad-shouldered yet small, the surprise star of an intriguing swim meet, the fastest athlete in the pool.
Faster than Australian Stephanie Rice. Faster even than Americans Ryan Lochte or Michael Phelps. Little wonder then that Ye Shiwen, a 16-year-old high schooler from Zhejiang, China, has created the buzz of these Games. People here were awed by her closing 50 metres in Saturday’s 400-metre individual medley (completed in a stunning 28.93 seconds), and that goes for her fellow swimmers, too. They saw Ye set the first women’s world record in the post-high tech suit era and were blown clear away.
Lochte, who was 29.10 in his last 50 metres, joked he might have been beaten had he been freestyling against Ye. Phelps admitted he probably would have been spanked, too. “We were all pretty shocked and pretty impressed with her stroke,” he said Monday.
So, who is Ye and where did she come from? Those are the recurring questions as the sporting world sees the success of China’s swim program, remembering how 20 years ago it was exposed for its rampant use of performance-enhancing drugs.
The background on Ye reads as follows: she started swimming at the age of six when a kindergarten teacher noticed her big hands and told her parents she was well-suited for the pool. From there, Ye was trained extensively and began competing against international competition. She earned spots at the 2010 and 2011 world championships, where she won a gold in the 200 IM in Shanghai last year.
Following her stunning victory in the Olympic 400 IM, Ye was asked to explain her rise to prominence and said it was due to “very good training recently … I’m very lucky – training is not very hard for me because I’ve been trained since childhood. We have very good scientific-based training. That’s why we’re so good.
Maybe so, but doubts are surfacing like dolphins. In June, one of Ye’s former teammates, Li Zhesi, tested positive for the blood-boosting agent EPO. Zhesi had been a member of China’s 2009 world championship 4 x 100-m relay team and is not competing at these Olympics.
Ye was queried about doping after she posted the fastest time in Monday’s heats of the 200 IM, a clocking that narrowly missed the Olympic record. She looks to be a lock for a second gold medal in Tuesday’s final.
“There's absolutely no problem with the doping,” Ye told a Chinese reporter. “The Chinese team has always had a firm policy about anti-doping.”
The International Olympic Committee and its chief doping officer answered questions about Ye on Monday and defended her against unproven suspicions.
Rice, who won three gold medals in Beijing, chose not to wade into the Chinese doping waters. She simply said that China has its share of fast freestylers and that many have trained with Australian coaches, such as Denis Cotterell, who has helped transform Sun Yang into a gold medalist in the 400-m free and a world-record holder in the 1,500.
“I didn’t see it,” Rice said of Ye’s record-breaking 400 IM swim. “I was way behind.”
Every swimmer asked about Ye used the words “amazing” or “insane” to describe her performance. Ye used some rather strong words, too, saying she believed she was the best female competitor in the London pool. “I think I am now,” she said, “but there will be people who will be more successful than me.”