(Reuters) - Sun Yang has always been different from China’s other top swimmers, as much a maverick as a pioneer.
And not just because he is the first Chinese man to win an Olympic swimming gold medal. Or that he spent time in jail.
While most of China’s best swimmers prefer to keep a low profile, Sun just cannot escape the spotlight, courting drama and controversy wherever he goes.
At the 2012 London Olympics, Sun won the 400 and 1,500 meters freestyle gold medals, as well as a silver in the 200m and a bronze in relay, but nothing was routine.
He came within a whisker of breaking the 400m world record on the first day, just ahead of his great South Korean rival Park Tae-hwan, who was disqualified for a false start in the heats then reinstated on appeal and allowed to contest the final.
Sun then dead-heated with Park in the 200m then was almost disqualified himself in the 1,500m - his best event - when he lost his balance and tumbled into the water after an official aborted the start when someone in the crowd yelled out.
Swimmers receive an automatic disqualification for false starts but Sun was allowed to retain his spot because the official starter had told the swimmers to stand up from their crouching position because of the crowd noise.
Sun’s nerves were frayed but he responded by slashing more than three seconds off his own world record to easily win gold.
With his victory came money, and plenty of it. He was showered with sponsorships and endorsements but the flood of cash came at a price.
In early 2013 he was suspended from engaging in commercial activities after missing training and breaching team rules, but he seemed unfazed about it.
Later that year he was ordered to spend a week in detention after crashing a car that he had driven without a licence.
China’s swimming authorities slapped a blanket suspension on him, banning him from all training and competition, before he made his return at this year’s Chinese National Championships, which doubled as the trials for the Asian Games.
Despite being below his best, he still managed to win the 200, 400 and 1,500m titles and remains as confident and rebellious as ever.
“Everything’s going according to plan with his return to training, it’s going at a very sound pace,” Sun’s coach Zhang Yadong told Chinese media.
”He’s coming back well in the 200 and 400 meters. Relatively speaking, the 1,500m (preparations) are ideal, but due to the timeframe, he hasn’t reached peak condition.”
Sun’s victories set him up for another showdown with Park, who won three gold medals at each of the last two Asian Games, beating Sun in the 200m and 400m last time around in Guangzhou.
Park is a national hero in South Korea, adored as much as Sun in China, although the two could hardly be any different.
The Aquatics Center where the Asian Games swimming events will be held is named in honor of Park but the 22-year-old Sun is happy to trash-talk his biggest rival and is confident of putting him in the shade in his own backyard.
“I’ll only be up against Park in the 200m and 400m. He’s not an opponent in the 1,500m,” Sun said.
“Actually there’s no fight to the finish with Park. The Asian 200m and 400m records are originally mine, I believe he also knows that.
”My speed in the last two years is a lot faster. Four years ago at Guangzhou, I didn’t have the power. I was only a bit slower than him in competition and was a very big threat.
”Now, I’ve had four years of hard training, I’ll definitely be better than him.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford