Inside China’s tough swimming regime that shaped Sun Yang

Chinese swimming is in the spotlight after three-time Olympic gold-medallist Sun Yang was banned last month for refusing to provide a doping sample.

Sun Yang is the most decorated swimmer of the Chinese system.   -  Getty Images

A former team-mate of banned Olympic champion Sun Yang has given AFP a rare insight into how China drives its swimmers hard from childhood in the pursuit of national glory.

But Wang Yajie, who started swimming at three-and-a-half, told AFP that China’s approach had helped make the country a powerhouse in the sport.

Chinese swimming is in the spotlight after Sun, a three-time Olympic gold-medallist, was banned last month for eight years for refusing to provide a sample to doping inspectors.

RELATED | Chinese swimmer Sun Yang banned for eight years for doping offence

Sun, the most decorated product of the Chinese system, started swimming at a young age at Chen Jinglun Sports School in Hangzhou, which has bred a number of Olympic stars.

Wang was Sun’s contemporary in the national swimming team before she retired following China’s 2013 National Games to pursue other interests, among them singing.

Underlining the sensitivity in China surrounding Sun, Wang declined to speak about his doping case, saying only that he was “a rare talent” whose loss would affect the team’s medal hopes at this year’s Tokyo Games.

The 27-year-old also declined to discuss whether during her spell in the Chinese team — a world often closed to outsiders — she was offered any banned substances.

But Wang, a former national butterfly champion, gave a glimpse of life at the heart of Chinese swimming, which is regarded as the jewel in the crown of Olympic sports in the country.

While on the national team they were mostly confined to camp, rising at 5:30 am to train for up to eight hours a day, seven days a week in the most intense periods.

“We’d go to sleep at 10:00 pm with two or three people sharing a room, usually two,” said Wang, speaking by telephone from Wuhan, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak and a city of 11 million people on lockdown.

RELATED | Sun Yang: Rise and fall of a controversial champion

“I used to write a training diary every day. Because you need to focus on rest after training, you generally don’t leave the training base.”

They were well looked after but training was “tiring and hard”, Wang said. She admitted that the perception that Chinese training tends to be repetitive and unforgiving is accurate.

But Wang said sacrifices must be made in the pursuit of success, and that it is the same with top-level athletes in all countries.

“Recalling it now, I’d use three words to describe my feelings: affection, passion and gratitude.

“Every swimmer trained with 100 percent passion during each session, and I was no exception,” said Wang, who now runs a swimming club for children in Wuhan.

- Sun ‘very amiable’ -

Sun, the 1500m freestyle world record-holder, has vowed to appeal the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling against him.

The length of the ban took into the account the fact that it was his second doping violation, after he was suspended for three months in 2014 for taking a banned substance.

If the CAS judgement is upheld at a Swiss federal court, China will be shorn of its biggest star at the Tokyo Olympics -- and 28-year-old Sun’s career will almost certainly be over.

Wang described Sun as “very amiable” on the few occasions they talked and believes that the Chinese team can still do well in Tokyo, despite his expected absence.

RELATED | Banned swimmer Sun Yang’s Australian coach cuts ties

“The Chinese swimming team still has a lot of new stars, they are very strong,” she said.

Wang said there were clear differences between how young swimmers are coached in China and other nations.

“Whether in sports training or learning in general, they mainly enjoy the process and enjoy the sport,” she said of some other countries. “They are not so strict about technique and results and they may be more respectful of children’s ideas.

“In China, starting at six or seven years old, children begin to develop swimming skills, swimming speed, strength training and other disciplines.

“I think that is why the performance of the Chinese swimming team is getting better and better.”

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