SHANGHAI (Reuters) - As a gangly 15-year-old at his first world championships in 2007, Sun Yang asked his mother whether he was fit to drink the “foot-bath water” of Michael Phelps and other swimming greats at the meeting.
Less than six years later, the 1,500 metres freestyle world record holder has no such doubts and stands on the brink of becoming China’s first male Olympic swimming champion.
“I feel like a tough warrior, with shield in hand, I am about to go all out,” Sun thundered in a speech in front of the national swimming team last week.
“I am ready, London. We are coming. Chinese men are coming!”
Sun will compete in his pet 1,500m event and also the 200 and 400m freestyle at the London Aquatics Centre from July 28-August 4, searching for Olympic gold to cap his stunning rise.
The 1,500 title might seem a shoo-in for Sun, who smashed Australian Grant Hackett’s 10-year-old world record with a time of 14 minutes 34.14 seconds on the way to winning the world championship last year.
Sun also holds the year’s fastest time in the 400m freestyle ahead of Olympic champion Park Tae-Hwan, who edged him to the world title at Shanghai.
Sun’s performances at the world championships, where he also won the non-Olympic 800m freestyle title, laid another milestone in China’s re-emergence as a swimming power, following a lean period in the wake of doping controversies in the 1990s.
After a clutch of swimmers failed doping tests before the 1998 world championships in Perth, Chinese authorities vowed to clean up the sport, which coincided with a drop-off in international performances.
China’s resurgence started in earnest at the Beijing Olympics, with gold to Liu Zige in the women’s 200m butterfly and a clutch of minor medals dominated by her female team mates.
The men have been slower to make an impression, and prior to Sun’s performances in Shanghai only Zhang Lin had clinched a world title, in the 800 freestyle in Rome in 2009.
Sun’s success has been seen as the glimmer of a new dawn in the pool for Chinese men, who have benefited from foreign coaching in recent years and are literally growing in stature through improved diets and more advanced strength training.
Sun was born a 10-pound baby and raised in Hangzhou, a booming eastern city extolled in classical Chinese literature for its picturesque lake. His parents, both sports teachers, took him for a bone test at the age of seven and were told he would grow to 1.93 metres.
“With this height, it would look weird if he did not become an athlete,” his mother Yang Ming was quoted as saying by local media.
Entered in the local sports school which produced Luo Xuejuan, the women’s 100 breaststroke champion at the 2004 Athen Games, Sun quickly became a headache for his first coach Lou Hongmei.
His favourite trick - one he still indulges in occasionally - was to suddenly push or kick his team mates into the pool, Lou told local media.
“He has always wanted to be the centre of attention and he used every possible way to achieve the effect,” the coach said.
His mother worried that his son might have a hyperactivity disorder, until she learnt that American swimming great Phelps displayed similar patterns in childhood.
Sun swam his way to the Zhejiang provincial team and his mother would take long-haul drives to bring her son special soups she had cooked slavishly for hours.
Sun’s potential was recognised with a berth on China’s national team in 2006. He has since benefited from the training of Australian coach Denis Cotterell, who guided Hackett to his two Olympic 1,500m titles.
“Sometimes I swam sixty 200 metres a day, from 2:30pm to 7:30pm. It was devil’s training,” Sun told local television.
The offshore training has paid off and Sun boasts a washboard stomach to go with his lean 1.98 metre frame, on show in pictures posted on his Chinese microblog for his 7.3 million followers.
In the lead-up to the Games, Sun was awarded Communist Party membership.
“The Olympics is a war-field without the smoke of gunfire. Fast-tracking Sun’s application to enrol in the Party will motivate him,” a Zhejiang sports official told local media.
Reporting by Shanghai Newsroom; Editing by Ian Ransom and Nick Mulvenney