Swimming: China's Li aims for own Olympic breakthrough

An only child, Li Zhuhao's swimming career took off by chance when he was enrolled for classes as a five-year-old.
An only child, Li Zhuhao's swimming career took off by chance when he was enrolled for classes as a five-year-old.ST PHOTO: KEVIN LIM

Chinese swimmer Li Zhuhao announced himself to the world as a 15-year-old with the 100m butterfly silver at the 2014 Asian Games, just 0.15 second behind Joseph Schooling's winning time of 51.76.

At the 2016 Olympics, despite finishing fifth in the 100m fly final while Schooling defeated joint silver medallists Michael Phelps, Chad le Clos and Laszlo Cseh to win, Li boldly proclaimed he was ready to replace the legendary Phelps as the king of butterfly.

Two years on, and still a teenager at 19, Li has lost none of that confidence despite the emergence of American Caeleb Dressel and with Schooling and le Clos still ahead as favourites in major competitions.

Bold but not boastful, Li, who won the 100m fly in the Fina World Cup Singapore leg on Thursday, told The Sunday Times: "If you don't have this confidence to be the best, you shouldn't be an athlete."

Li admitted his swimming career took off by chance.

An only child, he was five when his parents enrolled him for swimming classes "to prevent accidental drowning", but his speed and natural feel for the water did not go unnoticed and he was enlisted into the provincial team.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics, which saw Phelps win eight golds and 400m freestyle swimmer Zhang Lin become China's first male swimmer to win a medal at the Games, served as an awakening.

"Both of them did incredible things that had not been done before. I was only nine then and cheered them on while watching them on TV like everyone else, but when I got a little older, their achievements became more inspirational," said Li.

With the Zhejiang province team also producing Olympic silver medallist Xu Jiayu and bronze medallist Wang Shun, Li laughed at the suggestion that the water in his hometown is more conducive for producing top swimmers and paid tribute to his provincial and national coach Xu Guoyi's guidance instead.

Xu Guoyi said Li's dedication to training, consisting of more than four hours a day across two sessions, is what sets him apart from other talented swimmers.

And until Li scales the Olympic summit, the former world junior record holder for the 100m and 200m fly has vowed not to rest on his laurels.

He said: "For a boy that knew nothing and felt no nerves, major competitions were something I relished because it gave me a chance to see where I stand in the world.

"Growing older, of course there is more and more pressure to deliver, but like I said, it is part of the game and I wouldn't continue swimming if I am not up for it.

"I believe I can be the best and I will keep working to get to the top." David Lee

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 18, 2018, with the headline 'China's Li aims for own Olympic breakthrough'. Print Edition | Subscribe