LONDON (Reuters) - Proud and patriotic, China’s Sun Yang is a worthy successor to distance swimming great Grant Hackett, but will find out in London whether he has the Australian’s famed mental toughness, his coach Denis Cotterell said.
Cotterell, a shaggy-haired surfing enthusiast from Australia’s Gold Coast, was the mastermind behind Hackett’s Olympic gold at the 2000 Sydney Games in the 1,500 metres freestyle and his successful title defence four years later in Athens.
Cotterell now stands on the brink of another coaching triumph, with 20-year-old world champion Sun hot favourite to win the 1,500 in London, and a leading contender to upset reigning South Korean champion Park Tae-Hwan in the 400 freestyle.
Despite Sun’s credentials, Cotterell feels nervous for his swimmer and reluctant to talk too much -- both for fear of adding to the massive pressure already on his shoulders and for upsetting his Chinese paymasters.
He cannot help but lavish praise on the rangy pin-up boy of Chinese swimming, however, describing him as big kid “with a bit of cheek”.
“There’s a lot of Hackett in Sun,” a tired Cotterell told Reuters in a phone call from his flat in the Athletes’ Village.
”He has a lot of passion for the sport and a passion for speed.
”We’ll see whether he can be tough as Grant. He’s superior technically but toughness is a rarer quality.
”You didn’t get tougher than Grant -- all the great swimmers like Alex Popov and Pieter van den Hoogenband, will attest to that.
“(Sun‘s) got races ahead of him that will define his character further.”
Cotterell’s legacy as a principal architect of Australian dominance in the 1,500 -- the gruelling iron-man event of the pool -- is assured, but his new role in Sun’s corner has not been universally cheered in his home country.
The Australian watched his swimmer smash Hackett’s decade-long 1,500 world record in the world championship final in Sun’s home pool at Shanghai last year. Hackett lamented the record as Australia’s loss.
Australia’s achievements in the pool are part of the country’s Olympic folklore, but the swim team is expected to struggle to win more than two titles in London and could post their worst medal haul in decades.
Sun-led China, however, is on the rise with the help of foreign coaches, which have included American Mike Bottom, who trained 200 butterfly specialist Wu Peng to a bronze in the world championships.
“To a little degree you could say (the criticism‘s) fair,” said Cotterell, who has welcomed dozens of Olympic hopefuls to his Miami Swimming Club in the Gold Coast.
”I‘m prepared to coach people who turn up and are prepared to do the work. It’s a tough programme.
“Training Sun and the Chinese has kept me interested in the Games. It’s re-affirming that my programme is still valid and that it can still produce results.”
Sun will bid to become China’s first male swimmer to win Olympic gold but has yet to perform on the biggest stages overseas, with his two greatest titles coming in home pools.
He announced himself with a blistering swim to win the 1,500m gold at the 2010 Asian Games in the southern Chinese city of Guangzhou, before trouncing all comers at the Shanghai world championships last year.
A gold or two away from the comforts of home would be the ultimate validation for Sun and also for Cotterell, who has taken comfort from his swimmer’s assuredness in the leadup to the biggest event of his life.
Sun pepped up his team mates with a fiery speech before they left for London, saying: “I feel like a tough warrior, with shield in hand, I am about to go all out!”
Sun was no “hard-core” mature kid, said Cotterell, who painted a picture of a goofy teenager with a penchant for horseplay when he came to the Miami club after the Beijing Games.
”Although he seems to be becoming a little more mature in the last couple of months.
”He seems to be taking pride in being a groundbreaker -- he likes to be the groundbreaker and he’s enjoying the opportunity to be that person. He seems to be relishing the challenge.
“He certainly doesn’t seem to be fazed by the position he is in.”
China has sent swimmers to Cotterell for a number of years. His first involvement with the team was with Zhang Lin, who he helped guide to a silver medal behind Park at Beijing.
Cotterell has picked up enough Mandarin to conduct basic training sessions but relies on translators to help communicate the deeper messages to his swimmers.
The Chinese train in the same lanes as Cotterell’s Australian proteges, which include two London Olympians in fast-improving 20-year-old Thomas Fraser-Holmes, a medal chance in the 400 individual medley, and Jade Neilsen, who will compete in the women’s 4x200 freestyle relay.
Apart from Sun, another 12 members of China’s Olympic swim team have benefited from Cotterell’s programme, and the Australian expects a number of them to medal.
He scoffs at perceptions of Chinese athletes being ultra-focused robots manufactured by the state, and says his swimmers and their Chinese coaches operate in a light-hearted and often irreverent atmosphere.
”They’re not serious and stiff about things at all. They like to have a laugh and a joke.
”On a personal level, they’re great and they have a passion for their sport and a serious commitment to striving to be the best. They also have a great pride in their country.
“Whether they can respond to a foreign crowd and much less support in London remains to be seen.”
Editing by Justin Palmer