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Disabled swimmer revels in golden Games

Source: China Daily Updated: 2021-09-14
Paralympian finally achieves dream after years of devotion and struggle. Li Lei reports.
Zheng Tao competes in the men's 50m backstroke S5 swimming heat at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games in Japan on Aug 30. CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP

Paralympic swimmer Zheng Tao, who has no arms, sat back in the water, clenched a towel between his teeth to support his body and waited for the starting cue.

When the race got underway, Zheng, dubbed the "finless flying fish" on Chinese social media, darted away and quickly took the lead, trailed by teammates Wang Lichao and Yuan Weiyi.

He breathed rhythmically as water splashed around, his feet kneading the water like propellers and his torso creating waves like an eel.

At the finish line, he dashed his head-the foremost part of his body when he swims-hard against the wall of the pool, setting a world record of 30.62 seconds at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. Wang came second and Yuan was third.

The event-the men's 50m butterfly S5 final-took place on Aug 27 at the Tokyo Aquatics Center.

Zheng lifted his head out of the water to check confirmation of the time on the screen. Then he let out a victory cry and raised his left foot into the air to mark the long-awaited moment.

"I made it. I wanted the gold so bad. After all, I missed it in the last two Games," the three-time Paralympian said during an interview after the race.

The 31-year-old, from the southwestern province of Yunnan, made it to the finals of the same event at the 2012 and 2016 Games. However, both turned out to be close misses, with Zheng taking silver each time.

This year, though, he smashed the world record in the event and broke three other records, consolidating China's traditional dominance in swimming at Paralympic Games.

One of those records came on Sept 1, when he won the men's 50m freestyle S5. By winning the event, Zheng captured Team China's 500th gold since the country's debut at the 1984 Games held in Stoke Mandeville, England, and New York in the United States.

Zheng Tao (center) poses with Ruan Jingsong (left) and Wang Lichao after they won medals in the men's 50m backstroke S5 category heat during the Games in Japan on Aug 30. ZHANG CHENG/XINHUA

Zheng said his favorite tune is Wang Leehom's 2007 song Change Me, which features the lyrics, "I can change the world, change me."

Born in an impoverished village in Yunnan, Zheng lost both arms at the age of 6 after he touched a bare electric cable while playing.

In 2004, Zhang Honghu, a swimming coach with the Yunnan Disabled Persons' Federation, visited Zheng's village to select "seed athletes".

He thought that Zheng's physique would be suitable for competitive swimming, but the boy's family was opposed to the idea, fearing that the sport would be hard work.

Zheng said he wanted to try because he didn't want to be a "useless" person. The word "useless" is shorthand for the entrenched discrimination aimed at disabled people-often deemed a burden on the family-in China's formally impoverished rural regions.

However, through twists and turns, he was recruited to the provincial team and started serious swimming at age 14. He was later selected for the national team.

Coach Zhang was well aware of the secret of Zheng's success. "He has a gift for swimming, but more importantly, he is willing to work hard," Zhang said.

He recalled that while other child swimmers spent five hours in the pool per day, Zheng practiced eight to nine hours every day.

The young athlete sustained a back injury and lumbar muscle strain at the Rio Paralympics, but after undergoing a series of rehabilitation therapies and training, he quickly returned to the pool.

In the run-up to this year's Tokyo Games, Zheng swam more than 10 kilometers every day.

Xiong Xiaoming, Zheng's coach on the national team, advised the athlete not to dash his head against the wall of the pool during training sessions, but Zheng insisted on doing so, treating each training session as if it were a Paralympic event. He said it was the only way to maximize the accuracy of the training data.

Zheng was one of 251 athletes-including 132 women-China sent to the Tokyo Games, where about 4,400 athletes from 162 countries and regions competed in 22 sports.

Authorities said 40 percent of the Chinese athletes were first-time Paralympians, but Team China still won 207 medals, including 96 golds, and topped the table for the fifth consecutive time. However, there were no spectators because of concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic.

Jiang Yuyan, a 16-year-old swimmer, was the youngest athlete on the Chinese squad. She won two golds, a silver and a bronze, and set two world records.

Zheng competes in the men's 50m butterfly S2 category heat at the Games on Aug 27. BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP

Zheng said he wanted to provide an example for his 2-year-old daughter. "I want to tell her one day that I can swim fast without arms," he told, an online news portal. As it turned out, he actually inspired far more people than he had planned.

The topic "31-year-old Zheng Tao won four golds and broke four records" has been viewed about 130 million times on Weibo, China's Twitter-like social media platform.

"After watching his performance, I've realized that it's me, not him, that is 'disabled'," one Weibo user commented. Another wrote, "The Olympics help to select humanity's best bodies, while the Paralympics help to detect humanity's immortal souls."

In a congratulatory letter released on Sept 5, the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China and the State Council, China's Cabinet, said Zheng and the other Chinese Paralympians have been inspirational for the nation's disabled people.

"Your brilliant performance has set an example for many Chinese with disabilities, added luster to the cause of sports for people with disabilities and won glory for the nation," it said.

The letter also called the athletes "a national inspiration" as China works to build itself into a "modern socialist country", and it asked them to pass the glory on and continue to make constant efforts to be the best.

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