Ning's victory is sweet after bitter setbacks in past

Ning Zetao's reputation has risen further after he bagged the 100m freestyle at the world championships in Kazan on Thursday. His path to the top included sitting out a year-long doping ban.
Ning Zetao's reputation has risen further after he bagged the 100m freestyle at the world championships in Kazan on Thursday. His path to the top included sitting out a year-long doping ban.PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

KAZAN (Russia) • Ning Zetao's stunning 100 metres freestyle win at the world championships on Thursday was an unexpected triumph for a swimmer determined to put a troubled past and the smear of a doping ban behind him.

The 22-year-old from China's Henan province became the first Asian swimmer to win the blue riband event.

He edged out Australian favourite Cameron McEvoy and clocked an impressive 47.85sec.

"I didn't come here expecting any medal, not even dreamt of it," said Ning.

"When I touched the wall, I didn't think I could come first so it was huge to see it on the board."

His maiden world title came four years after he tested positive for the stimulant clenbuterol.

WAVE OF EUPHORIA

I didn't come here expecting any medal, not even dreamt of it. When I touched the wall, I didn't think I could come first so it was huge to see it on the board.

NING ZETAO On his 100m free win

Then an up-and-coming teenager swimming for a provincial team who were affiliated with China's navy, Ning claimed to have unwittingly ingested it from eating contaminated meat.

But he was banned for a year.

Ning has had to swallow other bitter pills too in his rise to the pinnacle of world swimming.

He has long battled a stomach condition that saps him of strength. He spent most of 2013 seeing specialists and trying medicines to keep it under control.

He was also born with a chronic bone condition in his right knee that made him switch to freestyle earlier in his career after having trained as a breaststroke specialist.

However, Ning's biggest torture was to wait out the year of his ban.

Though he never betrayed his feelings to team-mates, he told a coach that he would often "shed tears in the water".

His break-out moment came at China's 2013 National Games when he set Asian records in both the 50m and 100m freestyle.

A year later, he celebrated Asian Games gold at Incheon in South Korea. Ning became the first swimmer from the continent to break the 48-second barrier in the 100m freestyle. He also swept another three titles.

Named the best male athlete of 2014 by state broadcaster CCTV, Ning now has more than 1.5 million followers on his Weibo account, which is China's Twitter-like social media platform.

He has joined Olympic and world 1,500m freestyle champion Sun Yang as a household name in his home country.

REUTERS


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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 08, 2015, with the headline 'Ning's victory is sweet after bitter setbacks in past'. Print Edition | Subscribe