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Zhang swims and smiles her way into nation's hearts

By SHI FUTIAN | China Daily | Updated: 2021-07-27 08:57
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China's Zhang Yufei poses with her silver medal after finishing second in the women's 100m butterfly final behind Canada's Margaret MacNeil at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday. REUTERS

Zhang Yufei may have missed out on gold at the Tokyo Olympics on Monday but the ebullient 23-year-old certainly won the nation's hearts.

With her confident smile and bubbly personality, Zhang became an instant hit on Chinese social media after proving as natural in front of the TV cameras as she is in the pool following her runner-up finish in Monday's 100-meter butterfly final.

"I am very happy. I learned a lot," beamed Zhang after clocking 55.64, just 0.05 seconds behind gold medalist Margaret MacNeil of Canada.

"I was very nervous this morning because this was my first world-class level (competition) this year, and all the competitors are here. Usually I compete at 200m. The 100m is not my favorite but I just tried my best."

Australia's Emma McKeon took bronze (55.72) just ahead of American Torri Huske (55.73), with all the top four dipping below 56 seconds.

Zhang's silver is China's first medal in the Tokyo Olympics swimming pool, with the news rocketing to the top of the trending topics charts on several Chinese social media platforms on Monday morning.

On Weibo, the hashtags "Zhang Yufei what a pity to lose" and "Zhang Yufei cheers after winning silver "had been viewed over 50 million and 40 million times respectively by the afternoon.

Her endearing post-race interviews proved as popular as her blistering pace in the water.

"Chinese swimmer Zhang Yufei added a silver to Team China, and after the race Zhang showed her warm sweet smile and said 'cheers' in front of the camera. Just like many fans commented online, Zhang really has a great mentality," read a People's Daily commentary.

Social media's comments sections were full of praise for Zhang, who will also compete in 200m butterfly and 50m freestyle in Tokyo.

"I feel I won over myself today. I actually felt a burden today as I really want to pocket the gold. I was really excited this morning when I woke up. My heartbeat was fast and I told myself I need to control my nervousness before the race started," said Zhang.

"I just kept telling myself to get rid of the pressure, because it's not certain that I can win the gold. Winning an Olympic gold requires not only strength but also luck. The 100m is really intense, and the swimmers are very close in pace.

"But I just want to say if I cannot win the gold eventually, I will not let my rivals win easily. We need to fight for it. I can accept not standing on the highest podium, but I will never give up."

Among the tens of millions of her fans back home are Zhang's mother and childhood coaches, who watched the action on TV.

"Yufei's training and physical condition are very good, and I think she is stronger in every aspect than she was at the 2016 Rio Olympics," mom Zhang Min told media on Monday. "My daughter only had a short break of three days last October, after which she kept training behind closed doors for the Olympics."

Her mother revealed that Zhang Yufei showed her swimming potential when she was just 3 years old and began training at age 5.

"My daughter has always been a very independent person. I remember one time her legs were injured with seven or eight stitches, but she never told me. It was the team doctor who informed me in the end. Then I called her, but she just laughed it off on the phone, telling me it's all OK and that it didn't hurt at all," her mother recalled.

"I was nervous at first today, but now I'm just excited and happy. I'm very happy with her performance today. She has presented the best version of herself. Despite missing the gold, I'm still very proud of her. I hope she can keep being the best of her in the coming competitions and I hope she can achieve her dream in Tokyo."

Kong Miao, Zhang's childhood coach, also expressed his immense pride.

"I'm so excited today. Yufei swam three straight races under 56 seconds, which I think is something that only she could have achieved in world right now," said Kong.

"She has the strength to win. But just like all the races, the result depends on the athlete's performance on the day. Still, she was amazing today and I feel shocked by how far she has come."

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