The Chinese quartet combined for the 2nd fastest 400-medley relay performance in history.
During these past few weeks, swimmers worldwide watched some of the fastest athletes compete at the 2023 Asian Games. The 19th quadrennial Asian Games were held in Hangzhou, China from September 23rd to October 8th. For many athletes, the Asian Games is considered to be the highest level of competition aside from the Olympic games. Swimmers train extensively in the hope of earning medals for their home country. The swimming events began on the 24th and concluded on the 29th. Team China, rallying up a total of 58 medals including 28 gold medals, outperformed the rest of the meet and presented one of the strongest and fastest teams in the world. Korea and Japan followed China to earn second and third in the Asian Games, only to earn less than half as many medals each. It was also the first time in history that Korea beat Japan in the medal table.
The Asian Games were highlighted by the blazing races of multiple Chinese athletes. Team China is often a country excluded from the discussion of world-class swimmers. Their most decorated athlete, Sun Yang, dominated mid-distance to long-distance events in the 2010s, winning a total of 6 medals at the Olympics including 3 gold medals. He also holds the current world record in the 1500m freestyle (14:31.02) which remains unbroken since it was set at the London Olympics. However, Sun Yang faced doping charges and was given an 8-year ban from swimming. For that reason, China remained out of the conversation in many competitions. Occasionally, names like backstroker Xu Jiayu were mentioned, yet China’s performance at meets was overshadowed by the performances of Caleb Dressel, Ryan Murphy, Adam Peaty, and others. The recent performances of athletes like Qin Haiyang, Wang Shun, Zhang Yufei, and others have gained the attention of swimmers around the world and shone a new light on the future of swimming for China.
After returning from the 2023 World Championships in Fukuoka with three world titles and a world record, Qin Haiyang’s performance at the Asian Games did not disappoint. Qin completed the treble in the breaststroke events again while breaking all three of the meet records for his events. He was just seven hundredths off his Asian record, with a slightly slower back half (31.07). Qin also decided to compete in the 200 IM (1:57.41), where he won the silver medal for China behind teammate Wang Shun.
200 IM Olympic gold-medalist Wang Shun also swam a lifetime best, breaking his own Asian record as he posted the top time this year in the 200 IM (1:54.62), ahead of superstar Leon Marchand’s time at World Championships (1:54.82). Wang Shun also became the third fastest performer in history, behind the legendary Michael Phelps and Ryan Lochte. Despite rumors of Wang peaking at the 2021 Tokyo Olympics, Wang proved that he remained to be one the fastest swimmers in the world. “I said [before the Games] I’ll let the flag rise at my hometown and I did it.” Wang said, “For me, breaking my own Asian Record is more precious than the gold itself. Age is just a number. To all those people who said, I’m done, are you done now?”
In the 100 Freestyle, Chinese teammate Pan Zhanle blasted a 46.97, putting him at the fifth fastest swim in history for this event. Pan Zhanle broke through earlier this year at the Chinese National Championships as an 18-year-old, going 47.22 and breaking the Asian record. Despite setting the fastest time of anyone this year, Pan was still “disappointed” that he couldn’t break the world record set by David Popovic in 2022 (46.86). “I felt my performance was average… I was aiming to break the World Record before the race. It’s a bit disappointing that I missed it by only 0.1.” He said in a post-race interview, “I will continue to strive towards the goal of breaking the World Record in the future.” Outside of the 50 Free, Pan Zhanle also swam his best time in the 50 Free (21.92), winning a bronze medal for China. Going sub-22 for the first time, he has become the first swimmer in history to go sub-22 50 Free, sub-47 100 Free, and sub-1:45 200 Free.
On the women’s side, Olympic gold medalist and world champion Zhang Yufei won 4 gold medals in individual events, continuing her dominance in butterfly and sprint-free events. She broke the meet record in the 100 Fly (55.82) and was just two-tenths off her own Asian record. In a CCTV interview, Zhang Yufei stated, “I hope that I get better race after race, year after year, and do better at the Paris Olympics than how I performed at the Tokyo Olympics.” She also mentioned that her preparation for the Paris Olympics will mainly be focused on improving her 200 fly which she won at the Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
Posting the second fastest time in history behind the 2021 USA relay with Caleb Dressel, the men’s 400 Medley Relay was also a standout of the meet for Team China (Xu Jiayu: 52.05, Qin Haiyang: 57.63, Wang Changhao: 50.68, Pan Zhanle: 46.65, 3:27.01) as they shattered the Asian record. The same relay went 3:29.00 during the World Championships, winning a bronze medal for China. However, the Chinese relay could be a threat to the Americans, who have remained Olympic Champions in this event throughout history. The Mixed 400 Medley Relay was also a standout, as Xu Jiayu, Qin Haiyang, Zhang Yufei, and Yang Junxuan broke the Asian record by going 3:37.73. Xu Jiayu (51.91) split one of his fastest performances, going sub-51, while Qin Haiyang (57.20) delivered another blazing breaststroke leg. The relay narrowly missed the world record set by Great Britain at the Tokyo Olympics (3:37.58).
The MVP awards went to Zhang Yufei and Qin Haiyang for their stellar performances at the Asian Games. In an interview, Zhang told the press, “This award is a new milestone for me and will make me work harder for the Paris Olympics next summer.” Qin, similarly, said that he will “aim for new highs in Paris next year,” and expressed his aspiration to break Adam Peaty’s legendary 100-meter Breaststroke world record.