5 Asian Games Champions Who Changed the Landscape of Swimming

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX, Arizona, September 26. THE great thing about the championship meets of the summer is they did not go according to plan. Many of the swimmers we expected to shine brightest did not live up to expectations, paving the way for new faces to enter the equation as we inch closer to the 2016 Olympics.

That was very much true at the Asian Games. While the attention was squarely focused on the Sun Yang-Tae Hwan Park rivalry, five others provided most of the headlines during the meet and will be the topics of conversations in their home countries for many months.

Ning Zetao

Photo Courtesy: Bestswimming

Photo Courtesy: Bestswimming

Before this week, the thought of a Chinese man making a world championship or Olympic final in sprint freestyle would have been immediately dismissed. While China’s women have excelled in sprinting in the past 20 years (mostly due to system-wide doping), no Chinese man has placed higher than 25th at the past four Olympics. Ning changed the possibility of that very quickly this year, posting times under 22 seconds in the 50 free twice in 2014. But it was the 100 free that had the world on its ear after he won gold with a 47.70. He became the first Asian swimmer under 48 seconds in the event, and his time is faster than everyone has swum this year except for James Magnussen and Cameron McEvoy.

While it’s easy to make a major breakthrough in a meet where you win by more than a second, the big test for Ning will be doing this again next year at the world championships. If he can produce another 47-second swim against that field, the 21-year-old will have officially arrived.

Shen Duo

(140819) -- Nanjing,Aug 19,2014 (Xinhua) -- Gold medalist Shen Duo of China celebrates after the women's 100m Freestyle final of swimming event of Nanjing 2014 Youth Olympic Games in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, on Aug. 19, 2014. (Xinhua/Ding Xu) (txt)

Photo Courtesy: Xinhua/Ding Xu

Like Ning, the arrival of Shen Duo to the international racing scene provides some fresh air for Chinese swimming. Shen had a spectacular Youth Olympics, winning six gold medals. But to win four golds at the Asian Games against more experienced competition says a lot about the 17-year-old’s mindset toward competition.

Though Shen didn’t swim as fast at Asian Games as she did at the Youth Olympics, it’s likely that we’re going to see Shen parading out as a world championship finalist next year. Her 53.84 in the 100 free from the Youth Olympics puts her in reach of the top swimmers, though the 53-second range is very crowded in elite competition. Based on conversations with her former coach Ron Turner, the potential is exponential for Shen as she becomes accustomed to the rigors of training that will come with being the best sprinter in China.

Dmitriy Balandin

So unknown is Dmitriy Balandin that photographs of him are difficult to find. Before he swept the breaststrokes at the Asian Games, the best he had done was make a couple of finals at the junior world championships. And now he’s the third-fastest swimmer in the 200 breast this year, and 11th-fastest in history. Balandin dropped six seconds off his lifetime best in one day at the Asian Games, from a 2:13 to a 2:11 to a 2:07.67. Had he broken the world record of 2:07.01, it would have been on par with Katie Ledecky dropping six seconds to break her 1500 free world record.

Balandin’s home country of Kazakhstan has a history of breaststrokers. Vladislav Polyakov, now an assistant coach at Louisville after a great swimming career at Alabama, grew up there. Now, Balandin is taking the country to new heights, and if he can keep up this pace, the organizers of next year’s world championships will have to make sure they have a prerecorded version of the Kazakhstan national anthem to play for one or more medal ceremonies.

Kosuke Hagino

Photo Courtesy: Joao Marc Bosch

Photo Courtesy: Joao Marc Bosch

Hagino has made it well-known that he wants to be the next Michael Phelps. Last year, he tried to win medals in six individual events at the world championships in an effort to make that claim a reality. He fell short with just two medals in the 400 free and 200 IM, and many thought the 19-year-old was being too ambitious.

This year at the Asian Games – which, admittedly, is not the world championships – Hagino won seven medals, six of which were in individual events. Four of them were gold. Probably the race that was most impressive was the 200 freestyle, in which he beat heavy favorites Sun and Park. Perhaps he got lucky in beating the men who tied for silver at the Olympics. Perhaps he has finally figured out the 200 freestyle. Either way, it made a statement that Hagino is going to be tough next year at worlds. In order to win multiple medals, he’ll have to manage his swims and race smart.

Ryosuke Irie

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Photo Courtesy: Delly Carr

Irie is not a new face in swimming. He’s been chasing gold in the 200 back for five years. Every time there’s a world championships or an Olympics, there’s an American in his way. It reminds of the frustration Laszlo Cseh must have felt placing second and/or third behind Lochte for almost a decade.

Irie has been swimming fast all year, and a 1:53.26 at the Asian Games was a seismic shift. To wit: the time was faster than Clary swam to win Olympic gold in 2012 and faster than Lochte’s winning time at worlds last year. When making medal predictions in the 200 back, I tend to count Irie as an also-ran who challenges the pace but doesn’t have the ability to get his hand on the wall first. I’m anxious to see what transpires next year at worlds, now that Irie is ending 2014 as the best 200 backstroker in the world. That’s the first time that’s ever happened for Irie, something he’ll use as major motivation in training for Kazan next summer.

A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Irie won the 200 back at the Pan Pacific championships. Irie was the 100 back champion at the meet.


  1. avatar
    Zhengyi Chow

    I think Chen Xinyi should replace Shen Duo.
    Chen’s 100m fly is world class,she also can swim freestyle,butterfly,medley,and very young
    and although Shen Duo win 4 gold,the achievement are not good

  2. avatar

    Agree that ChenXinyi’s 100 fly/50 free golds muy impressive but she’s been around block a time or two while Shen a Duo,had a breakout meet after a fine Youth Olympics.

    Irie swam great but he– like Hagino — gotta start doing it when it counts (Kazan/Rio). This meet was small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.

    Ditto,for Mr. Z.

    And Sr. Yang will”have a lot of stepping up to,the plate in next two,years if he expects to retain his titled from London and Barcelona. Paltrinieri’s young and hungry and “Old Man” Cochrane’s bound to,get a major gold one of these days plus the Aussies’ Mac Horton is coming on strong.

    Hey, doesn’t the Good Ol’ USofA have any male Katie Ledecky’s???

    Great story, JC. Very insightful.

  3. avatar

    Correction: Tyler Clary defeated Irie at this year’s Pan Pacs, not the other way around.

  4. avatar

    Great story JC. I am surprised you didn’t list Khazakstan’s Dmitriy Balandin on this list. He had a breakout swim in the 200m Breaststroke and swept all the Breast events.

    Lots to look forward to!

    • avatar

      Oops! Didn’t catch the Dmitriy piece above- My bad!