Sun Yang (孫陽) was stripped down to the waist and halfway through his post-race interviews at the Olympic pool when he stopped and scrunched his fists to his eyes to prevent a teary flood of emotion.
The first Chinese male swimmer to win Olympic gold had arrived poolside with an air of studied nonchalance, headphones clamped over his ears and goggles on, but it did not take long for the composure to break.
Three minutes and 40.14 seconds to be precise, just 0.07 seconds outside of the world record for the 400m freestyle set by Germany’s Paul Biedermann back in the bodysuit days when technology boosted the times.
Sun looked up at the big screen and erupted. Mission accomplished.
The man carrying the burden of expectation for more than a billion people had delivered, beating South Korea’s reigning champion Park Tae-hwan into second place, with Peter Vanderkaay taking bronze for the US.
The 20-year-old let out a roar, head back, fists pumping in the air before splashing in delight.
When it came to the medal ceremony, he was in such a hurry to step up that he had one foot already on the podium before his name was called.
“This is the reward for all my efforts,” he said through an interpreter afterwards.
“Today I was so impatient, eager to get on the podium. If I cry, it’s really because I worked so hard, I get up so early and work so late.”
Chinese women made the breakthrough with a fistful of titles in 1992, before the swimming program was mired in doping controversies that needed cleaning up, and have continued to be successful. Ye Shiwen (葉詩文) won the 400m individual medley gold in world-record time on Saturday.
The men are playing catch-up.
Coached by Australian Denis Cotterell, the Gold Coast surfing enthusiast who masterminded compatriot Grant Hackett’s 2000 and 2004 Olympic golds in the long-distance 1,500m freestyle, Sun has broken the barrier.
He was already the clear favorite before he even entered the pool, having set the fastest time of the year so far with a 3 minutes, 42.31 seconds in the Chinese championships in April, and there is surely more to come.
At last year’s world championships in Shanghai, the tall and languid-looking Chinese won the 800m and 1,500m freestyle, and smashed Hackett’s long-standing world record in the longer distance.
Before then, the only Chinese man to win gold at world level was Zhang Lin (張林) in the 800m freestyle in the 2009 Rome championships.
Park was the big rival, walking in with golden headphones and a look that betrayed no sign of a turbulent day in which he had been disqualified from his opening heat for a false start and then reinstated.
Sun said he had wanted the Korean to be there.
“If today he didn’t come to the final and I won the gold without him, many Korean media would say that this gold is not that rewarding,” he said.
Whatever lesson Park had learned from the morning’s controversy, it had not slowed him down, with the Korean making the quickest start off the blocks and going under world record pace for the first 300m.
Sun kept in touch and then hit for home, surging ahead of Park into the final turn and steaming down the final straight to trigger the winner’s single red light on the side of the high-tech block as he hit the wall.
Park was beaten, as the two red lights next to his head showed, but silver was still a whole lot more than he had been staring at a few hours earlier.