Teen has ledecky in her sights

Li Bingjie switching to fangirl mode when she met South African swimmer Chad le Clos at the Singapore leg of the Fina World Cup last week.
Li Bingjie switching to fangirl mode when she met South African swimmer Chad le Clos at the Singapore leg of the Fina World Cup last week.ST PHOTO: ARIFFIN JAMAR

Chinese rising star Bingjie, 15, hopes hard work will see her challenge American's dominance

She is known as the "female Sun Yang" in China.

Swimmer Li Bingjie may not be a multiple Olympic gold-medallist like China's poster boy - who became the first Chinese man to win Olympic gold medals in the 400m and 1,500m freestyle in 2012 - but the 15-year-old has already been touted as China's answer to American star Katie Ledecky.

The 1.74m teenager made waves at July's World Championships in Budapest, Hungary where she won two silvers and a bronze in the 800m freestyle (Asian record 8min 15.46sec), 4x200m freestyle relay and 400m free respectively.

She finished second to none other than Ledecky (8:12.68) in the 800m free - the same event the American won as a 15-year-old at the 2012 London Olympics.

Bingjie told The Straits Times in an interview at the Fina/airweave Swimming World Cup here last weekend that she has the 20-year-old American in her sights for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

"I think I'm getting closer and closer to Ledecky right now and the important thing for me is to keep working as hard as I can," said Bingjie, who won the short-course 800m free in 8:12.36 at the OCBC Aquatic Arena on Saturday.

MAKING HER OWN WAVES

I really don't feel that much pressure from the comparison because I just want to focus on breaking through my own limits.

LI BINGJIE, Chinese swimmer, on her childhood idol Sun Yang.

"My next target is the Asian Games (in Indonesia) next year. As for (whether I can surpass Ledecky), that's not for me to say."

Her personal best of 8:15.46 in the 800m is still some way off the 8:04.79 world mark Ledecky set at the Rio Olympics last year en route to winning four golds. The American is also a 14-time world champion, a record for a female swimmer.

Like Ledecky, whose mother Mary and older brother Michael were competitive swimmers, swimming also figures prominently in Bingjie's family background.

Her father Li Jian is a former 800m free national champion, while her mother Wang Wei was also a competitive long-distance freestyle swimmer.

"I always liked the water as a child and my parents would often bring me to the pool to play," said the Hebei native. "At some point, they realised I was good at swimming and I decided to go down the professional path."

She began full-time training at the age of seven, and entered the national set-up in 2013.

Bingjie's outstanding performances have not gone unnoticed by the Chinese public, who have compared her to three-time Olympic champion Sun, the only man to have won Olympic and world championship medals at every freestyle distance from 200m to 1,500m. The 25-year-old also holds the 1,500m world record and the 200 and 400m Asian records.

Bingjie shared the spotlight with her childhood idol at China's National Games in September, setting Asian 400m free (4:01.75) and 1,500m free (15:52.87) records.

Shrugging off comparisons with Sun, she said: "I really don't feel that much pressure from the comparison because I just want to focus on breaking through my own limits," said Bingjie. "But I hope I can be as outstanding as him one day."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on November 22, 2017, with the headline 'Teen has ledecky in her sights'. Print Edition | Subscribe