Ning Zetao: Swimming’s Newcomer of the Year

Ning Zetao

Commentary by Jeff Commings

PHOENIX – No other name at or near the top of the long course swimming world rankings garnered as much forehead wrinkling as China’s Ning Zetao, who will end 2014 as the second-fastest man in the 100 freestyle.

With a 47.70 at the Asian Games, Ning nearly supplanted James Magnussen as the fastest man in the event this year. The 21-year-old gave the world No. 1 ranking another shot at the Chinese nationals a couple of weeks later, improving to 47.65.

In an event where improvement is measured by hundredths of seconds, Ning’s drop of seven tenths in his lifetime best in one year is astounding. You have every right to second-guess his swims, given that he is Chinese. That country has a history of doping its athletes in the name of international success, and we are still reeling from the news that Sun Yang tested positive this year. But Ning has been steadily improving through the years, finishing 2013 in 11th position globally in the 100 long course freestyle. I see nothing to believe that Ning’s ascent should be called into question.

And if you need some precedent, consider Magnussen himself. In 2010, he was just a utility player on Australia’s team, performing admirably on the 400 free relay at the Commonwealth Games and Pan Pacific championships. In 2011, he was the 100 free world champion. In 2012, he won silver in the 100 free at the Olympics. I see Ning on a similar trajectory.

As impressive as Ning’s times were this year, I must note that they were swum at regional and national meets. He still needs to prove himself on the world stage, and he had the opportunity to do that earlier this month at the short course world championships. He posted an Asian record 46.76 as the second seed of the 100 free prelims, but withdrew from semifinals after injuring his wrist. Who knows what would have happened in the final with Ning in a lane?

If Ning is able to follow through at a bigger meet, it’ll be the first time in world championship history that a Chinese man is in the 100 freestyle final. If he can get on the podium in that event and also possibly in the 50 freestyle, he and Sun Yang could give China a medal sweep in all the freestyle events in Russia next summer. The United States is the only other country with the opportunity to do that. One year later, he could make history as China’s first Olympic swimming finalist in the 100 freestyle.

Ning’s arrival on the world scene this year brings another contender into an already crowded field of men angling for supremacy in an event that is viewed as the premier race on the swimming program. He’ll have to get past the likes of Magnussen, Nathan Adrian, Vladimir Morozov, Cesar Cielo and many more if he wants to leave Kazan with some hardware.


  1. avatar
    Bill Bell

    There are contenders and pretenders.

    Sr. Ning fits the later category.

    When he mounts the podium @the Worlds next summer or Rio in’16 and has a gold medal draped around his neck (and passes the drug screen!) then I’ll believe.

  2. avatar

    Thank you for nominating Ning Zetao as the newcomer of the year. His top class performance in Asian Games has almost aroused an earthquake on Chinese social network. Some people predicted that he would probably become the succeeding super star after Li Na if he would take a gold in Olympics 2016. However, The competition of 100m freestyle has always been extremely fierce. Apart from James Magnussen, I name his geek countryman Cameron McEvoy another serious competitor of Ning. Wish this kid good luck in Kazan and Rio.

  3. avatar
    Amanda Kang

    I never think Ning Zetao is a pretender. The year 2014 has seen his shinning performance. Ning is young and promising. There are strong reasons to believe that he will perform better in Kazan and Rio. As for the doping history, it shouldn’t be a problem getting in his way in future. I will always in favor of him!

  4. avatar

    We can see some West’s arrogent bias to Asian or Chinese althlets easily, no matter how good they are. In their deep heart, they just cannot accept that Asian or Chinese people can be as good as them or even better. China is not the only country has the doping history. Why isn’t anyone talking about doping history of some powerful countries?

  5. avatar

    Bill Bell, you sound like a sour grape. Your comment is full of prejudice and self-contradictory. As what you said, you’d like to see him to prove himself on the world stage next summer and in Rio, something going to happen in the future. Then, why you call him a “pretender” for no reason? Also, why he has to win a gold medal to prove himself? As Charlie mentioned above, this is going to be an extremely fierce and tough competition. Nobody could predict the final result. As long as he has made the effort and been improving, he would be admired and supported by plenty of people. Please be fair when you make comments on the athlete and other people in life as well.

  6. avatar

    “You have every right to second-guess his swims, given that he is Chinese.” LMAO what the is this. You’re acting as if China is the only country in the world with a history of doping “in the name of international success”. I nearly rolled my eyes to the back of my forehead.

  7. avatar

    “You have every right to second-guess his swims, given that he is Chinese.” — this was stupid and irresponsible. replace “his swims” and “Chinese” with something like “that he’s not a criminal” and “Black,” and see how that statement is problematic, context notwithstanding.

  8. avatar

    Australia doesn’t have an opportunity to medal in all Freestyle events?
    What?! Not with McEvoy, Magnussen, Fraser-Holmes, Horton, Harrison?

    The “Chinese” comment which is rascist one is also a contradiction of a previous comment in the same article “I see nothing to believe Ning’s ascent bla bla bla.” Well you are saying that you do because he’s been a doper & I don’t think any of us would have an idea to what extent & whether or not he has since….

    Very poorly written article & in my opinion someone with a doping past shouldn’t be winning any awards like this regardless of where they are from.
    There are many other swimmers who deserved this award.

  9. avatar
    Bill Bell

    As far as Mr. Zetao’s nationality/ethnicity goes I could care less. He could be blue with gold horns and if he turned in great times I would applaud.

    My only point and admittedly i made it in rather boorish fashion is that the jury is still out on him — as I believe it is on that Italian male sprinter who swam an NR in the 50 free last weekend ( 21.64) snd cut his 100 free pr
    to 48.16 from 48.7. He only had to swim finals in each race so,it might not have been that difficult ( and the guys in second and third were in the warm up pool — just kidding, Bomber!)

    Not that America is any paragon of birthed when it comes to doping but China has had a much longer and non-enviable history of top,swimmers being on the sauce and I’m just skeptical of their performances in general (and we won’t even mention the gold medal-winning 400 IM women’s swim @ London).

    All one has to do is look at the recent revelations from China’s neighbor Russia and it’s easy to conclude “where there’s smoke there’s fire.”

    Maybe the solution is to have two sets of world records — clean and juiced.

  10. avatar

    Well, maybe US takes advantage of their much more advanced high-tech and powerful control of the doping testing organization thus no one can check it out or say anything. No one doubts that American team is very powerful in the world but it seems that some American swimmers (of course not all of them) don’t show shining performance in non-Olympic years but always have astonishing one at Olympic Game. Perhaps it also lets people suspect that if Double-standard is might existed in every field of the world.  Surely the doping history of any country is not good.

  11. avatar
    Jeff Commings

    I appreciate everyone’s comments regarding my picking Ning Zetao as Newcomer of the Year.

    Those who take offense at the statement “You have every right to second-guess his swims, given that he is Chinese” should note that I am not personally calling his swim into question. I am directing the statement to those who might say that, because he is Chinese, we should not immediately celebrate his accomplishments. The statement is directed to those who might second-guess every major performance by a Chinese swimmer in the years since cries of doping went up after Ye Shiwen’s sub-minute freestyle leg in the 400 IM in London, or in the months since Sun Yang’s positive drug test. Given the recent news from Russia, if I had picked a Russian swimmer for this article, I would have changed “given that he is Chinese” to “given that he is Russian.”

    As you can see from the article, I do not believe he is doping. Many have told me since Ning’s first sub-48 100 free that he has to be doping, simply because he is Chinese and that is how the Chinese swimmers go from relative obscurity to world rankings. I used part of my article (sentences two through four of paragraph three) to address those who say he is/might be doping.

    Specifically, to Felix, Ning Zetao does not have “a doping past,” as you mention.

    There are dozens of swimmers around the world who I had on a list of impressive newcomers. It wasn’t an easy choice to make. I invite everyone to let us know who you would select as the Newcomer of the Year, so we can create an ongoing conversation about the great performances that took place in 2014.

  12. avatar

    He does not have a doping past??
    Check your facts,sir.
    He does and this is the problem with him. Not that he is Chinese.