This fine young lad is China’s latest athletic sweetheart. Ning Zetao made his country proud after winning gold in the 100-meter freestyle at the 2015 FINA World Aquatics Championships in Kazan, Russia earlier this month. He is the first Chinese swimmer to win the event, finishing with the best world record this year of 47.84 seconds. Ning beat out favored rivals, including Australia’s Cameron McEvoy, who came in second, just 0.11 seconds behind. McEvoy had been the fastest in the previous heats and semi-finals.
Ning’s gold medal win marks a milestone achievement not only in the history of Chinese swimming but also in Asian swimming. Often known as a competition between “flying fish,” no Asian swimmer has ever made it to the finals or won medals in the 100-meter freestyle event at the 2015 FINA World Championships prior to Ning. He serves as an empowering role model in events that are often heavily dominated by Western swimmers.
“It is a dream of Asia, of China, to get gold medals in sprint distances,” says Ning. “I just want to tell everyone that I am Chinese and I too am able to place internationally in the short distance events.”
This is Ning’s first world title after winning four gold medals at the 2014 Asian Games, where Ning placed in the 50-meter freestyle, 100-meter freestyle, 4×100-meter freestyle relay and 4×100-meter medley relay. The 22-year-old has since gone viral on China’s two major social media sites: Sina Weibo and Tencent WeChat with millions of clicks and mentions. Not only do his fans and supporters admire his athleticism but also his muscular body, good looks and humble nature.
During interviews, Ning shares that before the race, he wasn’t thinking about winning a medal, much less gold. “I just wanted to perform my best,” Ning says. “Today, as a Chinese athlete, being able to compete with the world’s best in the finals was already an achievement. I wasn’t expecting today’s outcome.”
When asked about his strong record to date and the potential he has for the upcoming 2016 Olympics, he declines to share any aspirations. “It is so far in the future,” he says. “Right now I need to plan long term.”
The accomplished swimmer is from central China’s Henan Province and was recruited into the Chinese Navy swim team when he was 14. Now a lieutenant, Ning is proud to represent China on the world stage, saluting his country’s flag during the medal ceremony. But behind the charming smile and medals around his neck, Ning’s success didn’t come easy. Ning started swimming at the age of 8 to help overcome a fear of water and to help improve his physical health. By age 11, he was already a member of Henan provincial swimming team. Over the years he suffered through several ailments, including chronic bone calcification on his right knee and a wrist injury. Three months before the 2015 FINA World Championships, Ning’s wrist was still not fully recovered.
In a feature interview with CCTV, Ning describes some of his lowest times. “There were a couple times when I was done,” says Ning. “I wanted to quit. I just couldn’t take it any more.” At one point he called his father, his role model and best friend, to vent his frustrations and how much he missed home. “My dad listened to what I had to say before calming me down,” says Ning. “He stabilized me emotionally and reminded me to not give up.”
His parents travelled overnight to visit him the next morning. They spent a couple days with him, talking, understanding and comforting him. “It’s hard. I’ve committed so many years to this career and I was going through a rough time,” says Ning. “It’s been a lonely path. Often times I just miss my family.”
But with the support of his friends and teammates, his family away from home, Ning made it. Endearingly nicknamed Baozi, a traditional Chinese meat bun, because of his chubby cheeks when he first joined the Navy swim team, Ning persevered through the challenges he faced. Even after receiving a one-year suspension from competing for failing a doping test in March 2011, Ning has trained tirelessly to come back strong. And his hard work definitely paid off.