“My coach told me I didn’t have to think too much,” Zhang said through an interpreter. “Just be myself. I really wanted this medal.”
About an hour later, the 23-year-old returned to the deck to swim for China on the 4×200 freestyle relay.
It was a race she hadn’t planned for. It was a race her teammates never expected to win.
After all, the Australians had double-gold medalist Ariarne Titmus taking the opening leg. The Americans countered with freestyling star Katie Ledecky handling their anchor. The final was expected to be a duel between those two powerhouse teams.
Instead, it was the Chinese touching first in a race where all three teams eclipsed the previous world record.
China’s time of 7 minutes, 40.33 seconds is the one that will go into the record books, sending Zhang to the top of the medal podium at the Tokyo Aquatics Centre for the second time.
“I didn’t know I was doing it until I’d finished the 200 butterfly and our coach told me, ‘You’re in the relay,’” she said. “I didn’t even know how to swim the 200 free, although I have the training qualities and levels for the 200 distances.”
The Chinese led the entire race, holding off a hard charge by Ledecky at the end.
Zhang, swimming the third leg, posted the slowest time among China’s four swimmers. But it was a gusty performance after her individual victory.
“We were inspired by her 200 butterfly and we were excited,” Li said. “It made us determined to do our best at the relay.”
Paul Newberry is an Atlanta-based national writer and sports columnist covering his 14th Olympics. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/pnewberry1963 and his work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paulnewberry
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