Zhang Yufei, China's rising butterfly queen

(Xinhua) 10:23, July 30, 2021

Zhang Yufei of China celebrates during the award ceremony after the women's 200m butterfly final at Tokyo 2020 on July 29, 2021. (Xinhua/Chen Jianli)

What China's rising butterfly queen Zhang Yufei believes -- keep smile despite difficulties in life.

TOKYO, July 29 (Xinhua) -- One who is always optimistic and hard-working has high hopes of success, especially in sports. The example of Chinese swimmer Zhang Yufei speaks for itself at Tokyo 2020.

On Thursday, Zhang won her first Olympic gold in Tokyo in two minutes and 03.86 seconds in the women's 200m butterfly, slicing 0.2 seconds off the Olympic record set by compatriot Jiao Liuyang at London 2012.

The gold was China's third Olympic title in the women's 200m butterfly, after 2008 and 2012.

In fact, Zhang already posted a then world-fastest time of 2:04.89 in the semifinal.

"The swim was fine. I should say I did not go all out. I felt assured in the swim just like my first world competition in 2014 with Liu Zige (world record holder)," said Zhang after the semifinal.

More notably, it's the quickest time that any woman has produced in the women's 200m butterfly since October 21, 2009, when China's Liu produced a world record of 2:01.81.

Zhang Yufei of China competes during the women's 4x200m freestyle relay final of swimming at Tokyo 2020 on July 29, 2021. (Xinhua/Du Yu)

However, Zhang's path to gold was not as easy as the gold-winning race. As her parents were swimming coaches, she played in the pool and first tried swimming at only three years old.

Zhang made into the Chinese team at 14. In her first world championships in Kazan 2015, 17-year-old Zhang won a bronze in women's 200m fly, and added another bronze in the women's 4x200m freestyle relay.

Everything seemed going smoothly, which Zhang knew it was rather a trick in coming years. Actually, Zhang never felt assured after Rio 2016, when she only ranked sixth in the event. She sometimes even shivered over swimming.

"It was strange that I almost forgot how to swim after the first 100m. I was totally not myself in the next 100m," Zhang recalled the Rio race.

Zhang once thought she was going to miss out the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. However, she bettered herself in the 100m butterfly at the trials and won her first national championship, which helped her regain confidence. At the Jakarta Asian Games, Zhang won the gold in 200m butterfly and silver in 100m butterfly.

Yang Junxuan, Tang Muhan, Zhang Yufei and Li Bingjie of China celebrate after winning the women's 4x200m freestyle relay final of swimming at Tokyo 2020 on July 29, 2021. (Xinhua/Xu Chang)

The winning momentum was cut short when Zhang suffered another heavy blow in the 2019 World Championships, in which she failed to qualify for the finals of the 50m, 100m, and 200m butterfly.

It was just one year before the Tokyo Games originally scheduled in 2020. "It seems that my life has been doomed on such an up-and-down track," said Zhang.

Her coach then changed her main discipline to 100m fly, and asked her to train harder. "I woke up many times at night, because of the pain from my burning muscles," Zhang recalled.

Then, the Tokyo 2020 was postponed by a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and no one could foresee the impact.

But for Zhang, there was gain to go along with the pain. She said that she felt like flying when swimming after arduous training.

During the Chinese Olympic trials in Qingdao in early May, Zhang posted the fastest time in the women's 200m butterfly in 2021, hitting a 2:05.44.

"No idea why I was afraid of the 200m fly. The fear came for me again before the final. I kept telling myself that I needed to adjust myself to a better performance for the Games in July," she said.

In mid July, Zhang came to Tokyo with an aim to assert herself. In the women's 100m butterfly, she managed to top the heats and semifinal, but she was outpaced to a silver medal in 55.64 seconds, only 0.05 seconds after the gold medalist.

Zhang Yufei of China celebrates after winning the women's 200m butterfly final at Tokyo 2020 on July 29, 2021. (Xinhua/Chen Jianli)

"I learned a lot. I was very nervous this morning because this year has been my first world-class level (competition) and there were all the competitors here. Usually I compete in the 200m. The 100m is not my favorite but I just gave it a try," said Zhang with a bright smile at the press conference.

Compared to Rio 2016, Zhang not only felt happy with the silver, but also deemed the race as a valuable lesson of how to adjust herself and to get rid of being nervous. She believed it would help for her 200m fly and do a better job in the race.

She made it in the 200m competition.

Moreover, Zhang joined the Chinese team and won the women's 4x200m freestyle relay in a world-record seven minutes and 40.33 seconds. China has become the third NOC to claim an Olympic gold in the relay event.

Few people knows that Zhang is born with a curvature of the spine, which was diagnosed until 2015. It is apparently not good for a butterfly swimmer as the event requires a physical balance throughout.

"Fortunately, it has been improved through training and medical assistance," said Zhang, a 23-year-old swimmer often smiling back at challenges.

"Keep your smile despite difficulty in life," Zhang wrote on a Twitter-like platform of Weibo, posting two smiling selfies after she claimed an Olympic 100m butterfly silver.

(Web editor: Xia Peiyao, Liang Jun)


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