Breakout Performer of the Year: Zhang Yufei Emerges to Win 200 Fly Gold in Tokyo

Jul 29, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Zhang Yufei (CHN) receives her gold medal during the medals ceremony for the women's 200m butterly during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Sports
Zhang Yufei after claiming Olympic gold in the women's 200 butterfly -- Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher/USA TODAY Sports

Breakout Performer of the Year: Zhang Yufei Emerges to Win 200 Fly Gold in Tokyo

When Zhang Yufei competed at the 2019 World Championships, she was a total nonfactor in the individual butterfly events. She qualified for the semifinals in the 100 fly before tying for 13th, and she placed 26th in the 200 fly. She had been the bronze medalist in the 200 fly at the 2015 World Championships and then qualified for individual finals in both butterfly events in 2017, but she had never been a serious gold-medal contender at a world-level meet. Certainly, there was nothing that indicated a major breakthrough was coming.

But while the Olympics were postponed from 2020 to 2021 because of the COVID-19 pandemic, several top Chinese swimmers recorded quick performances at domestic meets at the end of the year. Zhang blasted a 55.62 in the 100 fly, smashing her lifetime best and becoming the second-fastest performer ever in the event. She also split 55.32 on China’s mixed 400 medley relay, which broke a world record. She also swam a 2:06.99 in the 200 fly, but then she lowered her personal-best mark to 2:05.44 at China’s national championships in early 2021.

The 23-year-old Zhang arrived in Tokyo as true medal contender for the first time at a major meet, and she delivered on that promise she showed in the leadup. She nearly captured gold in the 100 fly as she led for much of the second lap before Canada’s Maggie MacNeil ran her down. MacNeil won gold in 55.59, just five hundredths ahead of Zhang’s silver medal.

Three days later, Zhang won two gold medals in a single session with historic performances. First, in the women’s 200 fly final, she buried the field early and led by a bodylength after just 50 meters. She would never be seriously challenged after that. Zhang won by more than a second, and her time was 2:03.86, breaking the Olympic record of 2:04.06 set by countrywoman Jiao Liuyang at the 2012 Olympics. The time was the fastest ever recorded in a textile suit, and Zhang became the third-fastest swimmer ever behind world-record holder Liu Zige and Jessicah Schipper.

A short time later, Zhang swam the third leg of the 800 freestyle relay for the Chinese women. She entered with the lead, and she delivered with a 1:55.66 split to maintain the advantage going into the anchor leg. She earned another gold medal in that race, and she combined with teammates Yang JunxuanTang Muhan and Li Bingjie to set a new world record.

Zhang would add a fourth Olympic medal in the mixed 400 medley relay. She split 55.48, the fastest women’s fly split, to propel China to a silver. She also split 55.32 on the Chinese women’s 400 medley relay, which placed fourth.

To follow up that Olympic success, Zhang competed at the end of the year at the Short Course World Championships in Abu Dhabi, and she secured an easy gold medal in the women’s 200 fly while propelling China to 400 medley relay bronze with another stellar fly split.

Zhang Yufei has been around on the international scene for a while, but she is just now coming into her own. Expect her to continue to fight for medals at major meets in the 100 fly, and there is no one in the world within striking distance of her in the 200 fly. But she might never top what she accomplished in 2021, when she became an Olympic gold medalist for the first time.

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