Chinese swimmer Ye Shiwen became a double Olympic gold medalist at 16. She’s predicting the stars of the future could be even younger.
Ye, who’s become one of the most talked-about athletes of London 2012, shattered the Olympic record last night to add the 200-meter individual medley title to the 400-meter medley crown she got on the first day of the meet by breaking the world record.
Ye’s not the youngest winner in the pool. Two days ago, Lithuania’s Ruta Meilutyte, a 15-year-old who trains in Plymouth, England, captured the 100-meter women’s breaststroke title. Their successes make Missy Franklin, a 17-year-old U.S. high school student who took the 100-meter backstroke gold, seem like a relative veteran.
“It’s very possible,” Ye said at a news conference when asked if her success could be emulated by other girls as young as herself. “I believe there’ll be more and more people who are as capable as me, if not even younger.”
Franklin, from Colorado, has shunned the advances of sponsors looking to unearth the next big U.S. swimming star after record 15-time gold medalist Michael Phelps, 27, quits the sport following the London Games. Franklin’s been seeking career advice from Phelps, who became the most successful Olympian in history last night when he anchored the winning U.S. 800-meter relay team to secure a 19th career medal.
“It’s so great to have so many young people involved in the sport, and it’s awesome to still have the veterans that are here with us,” Franklin told reporters after taking gold on July 30. “That’s how we’re learning. We’re getting all of our knowledge from these amazing swimmers who’ve done this so many times and they can help us be the best we can be.”
Ye broke the Olympic 200-meter medley record in 2 minutes, 07.57 seconds in a race she led from start to finish. Alicia Coutts of Australia won the silver ahead of Caitlin Leverenz of the U.S. Ye’s time made her the first woman to swim the event in under 2:08 in a textile suit. Ariana Kukors of the U.S., who finished fifth last night, set the 2:06.15 world record in 2009 while wearing a now-banned speed suit.
In the 400-meter medley on July 28, Ye swam her final 50-meter freestyle leg in 28.93 seconds. That same night, U.S. swimmer Ryan Lochte recorded a final leg of 29.10 while winning gold in the men’s 400 medley. Lochte suggested Ye might have beaten him had they raced together.
“It is pretty impressive,” Lochte, 27, told reporters this week. “She’s fast.”
Bookmakers made Ye virtually a betting lock for gold in the 200-meter medley. William Hill Plc priced her at 1-66, meaning a bet of $66 brought in $1 for her victory.
“We certainly don’t want to be ending up with liability with what looks like an absolute certainty,” William Hill spokesman Graham Sharpe said in an interview.
Even while earning two gold medals, Ye has faced nearly constant questions in London about how her performance in the 400-meter medley improved by seven seconds since last year’s World Championships, where she finished fifth.
The teenager lashed out yesterday at critics who’ve suggested her times might not have been achieved through legal means. She accused them of being biased, and said “absolutely not” when a reporter asked if she had used banned drugs.
“In other countries, other swimmers have won multiple gold medals, how come people will criticize me because I have multiple medals?” Ye asked.
Ye passed a drug test after her 400 medley win.
“We would only comment if we had any adverse finding,” International Olympic Committee spokesman Mark Adams told reporters before Ye won the second gold. “I am not commenting, so you can draw your own conclusions.”
Leverenz praised Ye’s achievements, saying it was for sports authorities to root out cheats.
“I think it’s easy to point fingers, it’s easy to point fingers at any of the other racers,” the American said while sitting at a table next to the young Chinese swimmer.
Any exceptional swim by a Chinese athlete is going to be called into question because of the “history of systematic doping by Chinese swimming in the 1990s,” said John Lohn, a senior writer at Swimming World Magazine.
“It’s sad,” he said. “People didn’t question Michael Phelps when he broke onto the scene and set his first world record as a teenager. People are not questioning Missy Franklin. Her country’s history is Ye Shiwen’s enemy.”
Ye said Phelps’s performances are something she hopes to emulate.
“I used to believe he was my idol, he still is,” she said, fingering the gold medal hanging from her neck. “He’s so strong that he can have so many medals by himself. I hope one day I can be like him, but I don’t know. I’ll try my best.”