At the age of 16, Ye Shiwen became the youngest Chinese swimmer to have won titles at the Olympic Games and FINA World Championships (long-course and short-course). At the London 2012 she shattered the 400m individual world record and set an Olympic mark in the 200m IM. Later she suffered from growing pains and from pressure before bouncing back at the 2019 World Championships in Gwangju with two silvers in the IM events. Now 24, Ye is back.
You were under great pressure after you became one of the most successful swimmers in China. How did you deal with that?
My early years were too smooth in winning those titles before 2013. Then I suffered from the heavy mental pressure and growing pains. I was at a low ebb, although my training went quite nicely. I couldn't display it to the full in competition because every time I competed, I was afraid. I wanted to win as much as I feared to lose for a long time. I was depressed that I could not meet the high expectations from myself and others. I did not know how to express myself to others.
The most difficult time I had was when I could not sleep well and cried a lot in the water. No one could see my tears and complaints. I almost collapsed because of the pressure. Fortunately, my parents, coaches and teammates supported me. They waited for me and did not force me to win or swim. They just asked me to relax and encouraged me to solve the detailed problems. They let me make the decision myself, to swim or not to swim.
What kind of decision did you make?
I left swimming for a while. After discussions with my parents and my coach, I turned to being a full-time student in Law School at the Tsinghua University during from 2017-2018. I studied and took vacations as ordinary students, played with friends and travelled around the world. It was interesting, the more I studied the stronger will I had: to return to the pool. I felt I belong to the water. I missed the feeling of swimming, so I came back at the end of 2018. If I look back, I need to say, I swam too fast and too easily to claim victories when I was young. It took me a long time to shrug off the growing pains and ups-and-downs. After I took one year off from the pool to live a life without swimming, I realised that I am still crazy for swimming. But no longer hungry for victory and no more fear of defeat.
What was your goal when you came back to swimming?
I still have a dream to become Olympic champion, though I already had two medals in 2012. I feel like a reborn rookie. I hope I can pursue my dream while I am still capable of doing so. Swimming is still my priority in life. I feel more relaxed and confident in myself now. The pool is like a playground for me. I have a lot of fun in the water. I want to show my best at the Tokyo Olympic Games. I am curious how far I can get in the pool. It is like a riddle waiting for me to open.
You did not with any medals at the 2013, 2015 and 2017 World Championships nor at the 2016 Olympic Games, but you finished with two silver medals in the 200m and 400m IM at the 18th FINA World Championships in Gwangju last year. Do you think you are in the second prime time of your career?
I was at a low ebb bit I did not give up. I just tried to train as usual. I was thrilled with my performance in Gwangju and it has boosted my confidence in swimming. I had not won anything at the Worlds since I collected my first world title at the Shanghai Worlds. It was a long-awaited self-affirmation for me. I have no idea how the other girl swimmers deal with the growing troubles and with the increasing weight and height. I don’t know whether it is my second peak time but I hope to explore all my enthusiasm and leave to regrets in swimming.
You had superb freestyle splits in your medley races in the 2012 Olympic Games. Why did you change to breaststroke at the 2019 Worlds?
Freestyle is always my favourite, but breaststroke was my first and previous favourite when I was young. I had fun in breaststroke when I returned to the pool two years ago because I was not under pressure in this stroke. I thought maybe I could expand to a new battlefield since it is very difficult to train four strokes all the time in training. My coach also suggested I should take this challenge. A fourth place in 200m breaststroke in Gwangju was a surprise for me. I felt relaxed to swim breaststroke and any progress sin that would give me a surprise.
Your first national and Asian championship titles were captured in 2010. What is your biggest change in the past 10 years?
From 14-24, the biggest change has been the growth of my mind-set. I can out aside the previous glory and start from zero. I conquer my fear of defeat and start to enjoy the challenges. I still feel happy when I am in the water because it is a habit I have kept since I was six. I enjoy the pure love of the sport and the process of competition. I have a new definition of victory, which does not mean to beat someone else but to improve myself and show my best. I’m not as focused on the results as I used to be. The warrior is not the one who lives under the halo, but the one who creates the halo in the dark.
In the field of IM, Katinka Hosszu is the reigning Olympic and World champion. What do you think of her as your strongest rival?
Katinka is a role model for me. I respect her very much. She earned her reputation as the Iron Lady and I think she deserves it. She never gives up in her career and she also overcame the difficulties in her hard time. I chatted with her and she encouraged me after I returned to competition. We are rivals but we race against ourselves, nit the others. There are always many great swimmers in the IM races. Everyone has the chance to win.
What was your reaction when you heard about the postponement of the Tokyo Olympic Games?
To be honest, my first reaction was a sigh of relief. The coronavirus pandemic is an unprecedented challenge to all of us. We need to be concerned about human health and life. The virus has changed our lives in the past few months and maybe longer than we expected. But if all of us face the situation with full protection, we can finally win the battle against the virus. On the other hand, I think I can have longer and better preparation for my third Olympic Games. I can do a lot of things during the one-year postponement. I was full of excitement and curious for my Olympic debut in 2012. I tried to prove myself in Rio. This time I want to enjoy the game. I have no clear goal in Tokyo but to do my best.
What did you do during lockdown?
I have done more dryland exercises and share it with more people on social media. I also tried to cook more myself. It is rare that I don’t have a competition for so long, just like the time I was a full-time student.