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No rest for the best

China Daily| Updated: August 4, 2023 L M S


World and Olympic champion Zhang Yufei powers down her lane en route to finishing first in her women's 50m butterfly semifinal at the FISU World University Games in Chengdu on Tuesday. ZHANG WEI/CHINA DAILY

World champion Zhang Yufei defies lack of sleep to tear it up in the Chengdu pool

Having arrived in Chengdu from Japan at 3 am on Tuesday, Olympic champion Zhang Yufei had only managed to squeeze in four hours' sleep. Remarkably, fatigue could not prevent her from achieving extraordinary feats later that day.

Roared on by an exuberant crowd at Dong'an Lake Sports Park Aquatics Center, Zhang not only shattered the FISU World University Games record in the women's 50m butterfly but also played a pivotal role in leading China to victory in the women's 4x100m freestyle relay.

Not a bad way to make your debut at the games.

"We came here straight from the world championships, without any rest, because we were committed to taking part in the University Games," said Zhang, who won the 50m butterfly final on Wednesday in a new FISU record of 25.20 seconds.

"Usually, we compete as professional athletes, but this time, we are all university athletes, and what's more, we are competing in Chengdu. Being here has filled us with immense joy and excitement," said Zhang, a Southeast University student.

"I have never had such a tight schedule," the 25-year-old said. "I'm a little tired, but still very happy. This is a completely new journey. I'll compete and try to get some rest in between races."

Zhang arrived at the pool at 9:30 am and immediately found her rhythm, dominating the women's 50m butterfly heats to top the time sheet. Her exceptional performance continued in the evening's semifinals, where she once again left her rivals trailing.

Shortly after Erin Paige Gallagher of South Africa broke the women's 50m butterfly FISU record in the semifinals, Zhang surpassed it by a huge 0.43 seconds.

In her semifinal, Zhang was just under a quarter-of-a-second away from her personal best of 25.05, which she clocked five days previously to break the Asian record en route to a silver medal at the Fukuoka worlds.


From left: Luo Youyang, Zhang Yufei, Liu Yaxin and Li Bingjie pose with their medals after winning the women's 4x100m freestyle relay at the FISU World University Games in Chengdu on Tuesday. ZHANG WEI/CHINA DAILY

In a thrilling climax to the evening's events, the women's 4x100m freestyle relay final witnessed an outstanding performance from the Chinese team, comprising Zhang, Li Bingjie, Liu Yaxin, and Luo Youyang.

With an impressive time of 3:37.51, they not only shattered the FISU record but also secured the first gold medal for the Chinese swimming team at the Chengdu games. Italy came second (3:38.81), with Japan third (3:41.83).

Despite barely having any rest from her Fukuoka campaign, Zhang appeared to be largely unaffected by her exertions. "I feel like I'm still competing at the same level as the world championships, perhaps because the time between events was relatively short, and my muscles retained their training memory," she said.

With two golds, one silver and two bronze at the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, Zhang signed up for nine events at the Chengdu games, comprising four individual events and five relays, a testament to her phenomenal ambition and stamina.

"I hope to win all the gold medals in the individual events and work together with my teammates for more medals in the relay races," she said.

She said she was treating the Chengdu games as an opportunity to practice as she aims to improve the record she set at the worlds at next month's Hangzhou Asian Games.

"I will participate in many events in preparation for the Paris 2024 Olympic Games next year, and I hope I'll get used to competing in multiple events at tightly scheduled international competitions," she said.

A huge panda fan, it was no surprise to see Zhang proudly displaying panda-themed accessories on her clothes as she emerged from Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport on Tuesday morning.

Even when the competition began, she continued to showcase her affection for the national treasure, which is the mascot for the games in the form of the cute and cuddly figure named Rongbao.

During the morning heats, she donned a swim cap adorned with panda elements. Later, in the evening's 50m butterfly semifinals, she wore a swimsuit inspired by Chengdu's adorable real-life giant panda Hua Hua.

"It's my favorite racing attire," Zhang said. "Giant pandas are incredibly cute, and I really hope to visit Hua Hua and take a photo together."

Also a fan of spicy food, Zhang added that she was raring to try Chengdu's signature hotpot after the competition.