Coasting through the water with methodical ease, Sun Yang hardly looked like a man carrying the weight of an expectant Chinese nation.
Only when he touched the wall did the 12,000 people packed inside the Duna Arena see what it meant to the controversial 25-year-old Chinese after his power-driven victory in the men’s 400m freestyle final on Sunday.
After winning, Sun sat on the ropes, splashed the water, punched the air and then went to seek out his parents in the crowd.
Sun’s time of three minutes 41.38 seconds saw him record a record-equalling third successive 400m freestyle world title as well as keeping up Asia’s dominance at the distance since 2009.
That was the year Germany’s Paul Biedermann posted a mark 1.31 seconds quicker but back in the bodysuit days when technology aided the times.
Yet Sun, who served a retrospective three-month suspension in 2014 after testing positive for a banned stimulant, believes Biedermann’s time can be broken.
“It’s all about training and you have to keep pursuing it yourself,” the Chinese told reporters after bagging the first of a possible four individual freestyle golds.
“I have to find new ways to enhance my performance. That’s what I do in reference of my result. I am quite content and satisfied with that. I will keep training more and this I think is the way to break the world record.”
He has come close before. At the London 2012 Olympics, he finished 0.07 seconds outside the German’s record time.
But Sun has endured several mishaps along the way, notably when a car he was driving without a licence collided with a bus in 2013. After the incident, Sun said he was “deeply sorry”.
Since being beaten by rival Mack Horton of Australia at last year’s Rio Olympics, Sun has been working on his race plan with Australian coach Denis Cotterell.
“To design better techniques with my trainer is a never-ending process,” said Sun. “We get better with each other in our way of saying and doing things. “When I arrived in Australia for training it was still winter, quite cold, barely a few degrees outside and I had to go do my training. These trainings are really hard on your body.”
The hard work has paid off as on Sunday he became the second man in history – behind Australia’s Ian Thorpe – to win three successive world 400m freestyle crowns.