Chinese Nationals Times Foreshadow Elite International Performance

chinese-LI Bingjie CHN Women's 800m Freestyle Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 18/12/21 Etihad Arena FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
China’s Li Bingjie -- Photo Courtesy: Andrea Masini / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Chinese Nationals Times Foreshadow Elite International Performance

If Chinese swimmers can repeat their performances from last week’s national championships when they race internationally in July at the World Championships, the country will finish with its finest international performance since at least 2017, when Xu Jiayu and Sun Yang each captured world titles for their country on the way to 10 international medals. Now, after China earned only five medals in swimming last year in Budapest, the team could be in line for powerhouse status in Fukuoka.

Last year, no Chinese male swimmers or relays made the podium, with the only medals coming from the women’s 200 freestyle, where Yang Junxuan and Tang Muhan finished with gold and bronze medals, respectively, and the butterfly events, with Zhang Yufei claiming bronze in all three. But a whopping 10 performances from Nationals would have been fast enough to capture individual medals in Budapest.

Pan Zhanle just missed a medal at Worlds, finishing just eight hundredths away from bronze in the 100 free, but his time of 47.22 in the event from Nationals would have secured the world title by more than three tenths over David Popovici (although Popovici swam quicker on several occasions, including his world-record swim in August). But nobody else, including Olympic champions Kyle Chalmers and Caeleb Dressel, went faster last year than Pan’s 47.22. And he is not a one-event swimmer, either: his 200 free mark of 1:44.65 would have been good for bronze at Worlds.

In the breaststroke events, 2022 Short Course Worlds bronze medalist Qin Haiyang joined Adam Peaty and Arno Kamminga in the sub-58 club for the 100 breaststroke, touching in 57.93. No swimmer recorded a mark that quick at all in 2023. In the 200 breast, his time of 2:07.55 sits behind only the world record of 2:05.95 that Australia’s Zac Stubblety-Cook set last year.

To conclude the men’s rundown of would-be medal-winners, Wang Shun delivered a 200 IM time of 1:55.55, not far off his winning time from the Tokyo Olympics and behind only Leon Marchand in the 21 months since. Notably, Wang swam four seconds faster than his best mark from last year’s Worlds, where he fell to a shocking 15th-place finish.

Xu has not captured an individual medal since the second of his consecutive world titles in 2019, but his times of 52.26 in the 100 back and 24.54 in the 50 back were his best results in three years, vaulting the 27-year-old back into the international medal mix, while Chen Juner could be on the verge of his own contention after breaking Wu Peng’s 200 butterfly national record with a time of 1:54.16.

On the women’s side, the unexpected excellence came from swimmers with a solid pedigree but lacking in recent results. Li Bingjie, the 400 free Olympic bronze medalist and the short course world-record holder in the event, hit strong times in the 400 free (4:01.08, matching her Asian record) and 200 free (1:55.61) while 17-year-old Yu Yiting shined in the individual medley events. She finished in 2:08.34 in the 200 IM and 4:35.61 in the 400 IM, both times that would have won a medal at Worlds last year.

Yu placed fifth in the 200 IM at the Tokyo Olympics but was completely absent from the 2022 Worlds. But her time from Nationals was more than a second quicker than her previous best of 2:09.57, which stood as the world junior record before the arrivals of Leah Hayes and Summer McIntosh. Coincidentally, the 200 IM looks like one of the most competitive events internationally now with McIntosh and Kaylee McKeown joining whichever two Americans qualify (between Hayes, Alex Walsh and Kate Douglass).

Finally, Ye Shiwen went 2:22.44 in the 200 breaststroke, only three hundredths shy of Lilly King’s world-title-winning time from last year. Yes, this is the same Ye Shiwen who captured both individual medley Olympic gold medals in 2012 —and then did not win another medal at a major meet until 2019, when she won a pair of individual medley silvers at the World Championships. Ye was then completely absent from the Tokyo Olympics and Budapest Worlds, but at age 27, she will seek her first international medal in breaststroke this year.

None of this accounts for relays, where China has significant medal potential. The women’s 800 free relay won Olympic gold in world-record time in Tokyo (before failing to win a medal last year), and the other women’s relays could be in the mix with Chang, Yang and Cheng Yujie leading the way.

On the men’s side, Xu, Qin and Pan comprise three-quarters of a championship-level medley relay, although there is a question mark on butterfly, with the top time from last week (Wang Changhao’s 51.73 ranking well behind other primary contenders). However, the mixed 400 medley relay is a certain contender for gold with Xu, Qin and Zhang on the first three legs and either Yang or Cheng anchoring.

To recap, that’s a ton of medal-winning potential for late July in Fukuoka. If all goes perfectly for China, even 15 medals seems possible. China has not won that many medals at a World Championships since 1994, when the women captured a whopping 12 golds (out of 16 events), including all three relays. China later won 14 medals at the 2011 Worlds in Shanghai and 13 at the 2015 meet in Kazan, Russia.

But will this version of the Chinese team show up internationally? The country is known for inconsistent results, occasionally recording superior times on home soil and failing to replicate them internationally and also varying wildly from year to year. Ye is the best example of that up-and-down career momentum, while Li went from three medals at the 2017 Worlds to locked out of finals in 2019 to a podium return in 2021.

We’ll find out in just over two months which version of Team China will appear internationally, and the even-more-significant prize will come at the Paris Olympics one year later. But it’s indisputable that this Chinese team has more potential stars than any in the recent past.

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