After stellar performances at the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka and the Summer Universiade in Chengdu, Qin and Zhang are looking to continue their winning streaks into this week’s Asian Games in Hangzhou.
The swimming portion of the 19th Asian Games will begin Sunday, September 24 in Hangzhou, China with many of the best athletes across the most populous continent competing in the quadrennial event. With less than a year to go until the 2024 Olympics in Paris, this will be a key stepping point for these athletes to gain valuable racing experience while living in a village amongst athletes competing in other sports.
Here are a few storylines to keep an eye out for when the swimming schedule of the Games gets underway.
How Fast Can Qin Haiyang Swim in Another Home Games?
China’s Qin Haiyang was the breakout performer of the World Aquatics Championships when he became the first man to win the 50m, 100m, and 200m triple in the same stroke in the same World Championships when he took the breaststroke hat trick. Qin broke the world record in the 200m breaststroke and became the second fastest performer in the 100m breaststroke as the target is on his back now in the lead-up to next year’s Olympics in Paris. The question is: how can he follow up Fukuoka?
Qin, age 24, took out the breaststroke triple at the Summer Universiade in Chengdu just a few days after finishing racing in Fukuoka, and also won two gold medals in both medley relays as his encore for the Chinese fans in Chengdu saw him break the Games record in the 200m (2:08.09) and win the 100m (58.92) by nearly a full second.
It’s been a busy racing season for Qin, who will have a race on his hands in the 100m with teammate Yan Zibei and in the 200m with the Japanese duo of Ippei Watanabe and Shoma Sato, who have both been 2:06’s in their careers. With Qin becoming the first to break 2:06 this summer, this is his race to lose, and he will feel the Chinese crowd rooting him on. If Qin can keep the momentum going, his stock will rise tremendously ahead of next year in what will be his second Olympics.
How many events can Zhang Yufei win?
Much like the aforementioned Qin, Zhang Yufei showed out well for the home fans in Chengdu with an impressive nine gold medal showcase on the back of a five-medal showing at the World Championships. Zhang took out Games records in the 50m and 100m butterfly and the 50m and 100m freestyle in Chengdu. Her 100m butterfly was perhaps her most impressive swim in Chengdu at 56.57 after swimming 56.12 to win the World title in July.
Zhang, now age 25, will be swimming in her third Asian Games as she won gold on the 4x100m freestyle at the Incheon Games in 2014 when she was just 16 and is the defending champion in the 200m butterfly from 2018. Zhang has since shifted to the 50s and 100s of butterfly and freestyle in recent years as she has proven herself as one of the best swimmers in the entire world based on her results this year.
Zhang’s biggest challenge will come in the 200m butterfly as she elected not to race the event in Fukuoka despite coming in as the reigning Olympic champion, instead focusing on the mixed medley relay where China won the gold medal. Zhang’s season best this year is 2:07.99 which puts her third in Asia behind Japan’s Airi Mitsui (2:06.77) and Hiroko Makino (2:07.45). She has been 2:03 in her career, but that was two years ago. That being said, Zhang is right on form with where she was two years ago, so she will still be one of the gold medal favofavourites the 200m butterfly.
Expect a good race in the 50m butterfly as well between Zhang and defending champion Rikako Ikee, who was the Asian Games MVP five years ago in Jakarta before a leukaemia diagnosis in early 2019 kept her out of the pool extensively. Ikee was as quick as 25.50 this year in Fukuoka while Zhang set the Asian record at 25.05.
Can Korea’s Men’s Freestylers Bring the Country its First Relay Gold Medal?
The Koreans have won 28 medals in swimming relays at the Asian Games since 1982, but have never won higher than silver. This year, the Korean men have its strongest core group of freestylers ever, with 20-year-old Hwang Sun-woo winning bronze in the 200m freestyle at the recent World Championships while teammate Lee Ho-joon was sixth in that final. It was the first time Korea ever had more than one finalist in the same event at a World Championships, a proud moment for Hwang and the rest of the Korean team.
Hwang and Lee teamed with Kim Woo-min and Yang Jae-hoon to finish sixth in the 4x200m freestyle at Worlds, less than two seconds off the podium to break their national record. They were the only Asian nation to swim in that Worlds final while Japan was ninth and China was 11th. Japan and China have won every single relay at the Asian Games except for three, but those two nations have combined to win every relay at the Games since 1962. If Korea can put together its best race, it would certainly be historic.
Although Korea was the highest finishing Asian nation at World Championships in this event, China may still be the favorite based on flat starts this year with Pan Zhanle (1:44.65), Wang Shun (1:45.71), Hong Jinquan (1:46.67) and Fei Liwei (1:46.69) as options. Korea has Hwang (1:44.42), Lee (1:45.70), Kim (1:46.10), and Yang (1:48.13) as its quartet and will definitely be looking to take down the likes of China and Japan in what will be a thrilling race.
Individually, Korea also has chances for individual golds in the men’s freestyle events with Hwang sitting as the fastest man in Asia in the 200m freestyle (1:44.42) this year while Kim is the fastest in the 400m (3:43.92) and 800m (7:47.69) this year based on his swims from the World Championships. The Koreans have had a very successful season, and will be hoping to put together it best Asian Games performance yet with its young core of Hwang (age 20), Kim (age 22), Lee (22), and World Juniors silver medalist in the 1500m Kim Jun-woo, who just turned 16 days before his 15:01 earlier this month in Israel.
Can Siobhan Haughey and Wang Kuan-hung Make History for Their Nations?
Hong Kong, China has never won a swimming gold medal at the Asian Games, winning 14 medals in total with only Robyn Lamsam (1994) and Mark Kwok (1998) winning individual medals. Lamsam won bronze in the 50m freestyle in Hiroshima 1994 while Kwok won bronze in the 400m freestyle in Bangkok 1998.
Hong Kong, China’s Siobhan Haughey did not compete at the 2018 Asian Games due to a nagging foot injury that summer, but has since become one of the top freestyle swimmers in the entire world, winning two silvers at the Tokyo Olympics in the 100m and 200m freestyle as well as silver in the 100m freestyle at the recent World Championships in Fukuoka. This year she is the highest-ranked Asian swimmer in the 100m freestyle with her 52.49 over China’s Cheng Yujie (53.26) and in the 200m freestyle at 1:53.96 over China’s Li Bingjie (1:55.62).
If Haughey can win gold, it would be a huge moment for Hong Kong, China.
For Chinese Taipei, they have won six medals at the Asian Games with just one gold occurring in Bangkok 1998 by the likes of Tsai Shu-min in the 200m freestyle. Wang Kuan-hung is ranked fifth in Asia this year in the 200m butterfly with his 1:54.97 from the World Championships but he was one of just two Asians to make the Worlds final - the other being Japan’s Tomoru Honda who won the bronze medal in his home nation.
Amongst Chinese Taipei’s six medals in the pool, just one of them was in a men’s event - a bronze from Huang Chih-yung in the 100m freestyle in 1998. Wang will have a race on his hands with the likes of Japan’s Honda (1:53.34) and Teppei Morimoto (1:54.74) as well as China’s Chen Juner (1:54.16) who will be spurred on by the Hangzhou crowd. However, Wang was able to beat Chen head to head in the 200m butterfly at the Summer Universiade in Chengdu to win silver as he was just 0.03 away from the gold.
If Wang wins a medal for Chinese Taipei, it would be the federation’s first swimming medal at the Asian Games since 2010. Wang has been around in many big finals on the international level but his silver in Chengdu was his first medal, which could propel him to a good showing this week in Hangzhou. Wang was just 16 when he finished seventh in 2018 at the Asian Games in the 200m butterfly, and will have his eyes set on the podium in what could be a historic showing for Chinese Taipei.
Who is the Next Breakout Star?
Rising star Dong Zhihao set the world junior record this year in the 200m breaststroke at age 18, while the two gold medal favorites in the 400m IM - Yu Yiting of China and Mio Narita of Japan are both teenagers. At the recent World Aquatics Junior Swimming Championships in Israel, five different Asian nations won individual medals, while four of them won at least one gold. Not all of those athletes will be competing in Hangzhou but there is no shortage of emerging talent in Asia at the moment. Japan’s Tomoyuki Matsushita (400m IM) Indonesia’s Felix Iberle (50m breaststroke), China’s Wang Xizhe (200m butterfly), and Hong Kong, China’s Mak Sai Ting (200m breaststroke) each won gold in Netanya at the World Juniors and those competing this week in Hangzhou will look to keep that momentum going against the best in Asia.
These Games have served as a launching pad for talent in the past, with athletes like Park Tae-hwan (2006), Ye Shiwen (2010), and Dmitriy Balandin (2014) utilizing this meet as a breakout party before winning Olympic gold two years later. With less than a year until Paris, we could see a new unheralded candidate emerge ahead of next year’s Paris Games.
Can Japan Win the Medal Count Over China?.
Last time around at the Asian Games in 2018, Japan and China each won 19 gold medals in the pool, while Japan won 52 total medals to China’s 50. These two nations have long dominated the Asian Games since the 1960s but since 1990, China has been the dominant force, with Japan topping the medal count on just two occasions in 1998 and 2018.
With this year’s Games being in China, it could be another dominating performance by the Chinese team, who is coming off five golds and 16 total medals at the World Championships in Fukuoka, while the Japanese team managed only two bronze medals in their home nation. It is possible the Japanese team will be reinvigorated to swim well at Asian Games after a relatively disappointing showing on a global stage as someone like Katsuhiro Matsumoto could very well need a second rest meet to get a mumuch-neededin in the 100m butterfly or 200m freestyle.
Veterans Reona Aoki and Ryosuke Irie had disappointing showings in Fukuoka and could provide a boost in morale if they can turn around and swim faster in Hangzhou. But China is coming off a historic year on the world stage, and will want to keep that momentum going in front of their home fans. China has not hosted a major international meet of this caliber since early 2020 with the Champions Swim Series, so the Chinese athletes will want to put on a show, but don’t expect Japan to go down without a fight.