Sun Yang takes a breather during a training session in Kunming, Yunnan province, where the Team China star is preparing for next summer's World Aquatics Championships. (XINHUA)
Pool superstar epitomizing the principle 'no pain, no gain'
In 2008, aged just 17, Sun Yang competed in his first Olympics in Beijing, finishing eighth in the 1500-meter freestyle final.
Now 28, Sun is powering toward his fourth Olympics.
Collecting over 100 gold medals along the way, he has become the first swimmer in history to earn world titles in every middle-and long-distance freestyle event, from 200m to 1500m.
His transformation from the fresh-faced freshman who would sometimes cry at big competitions to Team China's resolute and reliable captain who leads by example has been impressive.
"Swimming is my life. I spent my whole youth toiling in the pool and my happiness comes from endeavor and progress in the water," Sun said at the national team's ongoing winter training camp in Kunming, Yunnan province.
Watching the three-time Olympic and nine-time world champion propel up and down the pool during a two-and-a-half hour, high-intensity workout was a lesson in perseverance and dedication. He sometimes used paddles, fins or a kickboard to target different parts of his body.
Afterwards, he talked with his coaches, sifting through the minutest of details in his perpetual quest for the slightest improvement.
"He is doing nine swimming sessions, about eight kilometers each, and three gym sessions every week," said Sun's international coach, Denis Cotterell.
At the high-altitude Kunming facility, preparations are well underway for this summer's World Aquatics Championships in Gwangju, South Korea. Next year, the stakes will be raised even higher at the Tokyo Olympics.
"2019 is vital for our preparation for the Tokyo Olympics. We should seize the opportunity at the worlds in South Korea as all the top swimmers will be there," said another of Sun's coaches, Zhu Zhigen.
Sun has been in Kunming for around a month and is always the first to dive in and the last to leave the pool every day.
"This is an attitude for myself. I want to be more focused," he said.
Not surprisingly, Cotterell approves. "I see his discipline and his focus. He keeps maturing and I can see this in his work," said the Australian.
Years of hard training have taken their toll on Sun's body, but he still keeps in high spirits.
"Suffering is part of the game, especially when you have to ensure the quality of execution in every movement. But it's never easy to get the crown," he said.
Sun, though, is confident about retaining his world titles in South Korea, adding: "I think I'm capable and I won't give myself too much pressure. Maintaining a stable physical state is the top priority.
"Obstacles and hardships might get in the way, but my perseverance, plus strict training and smooth cooperation with my team, can help me make new breakthroughs."
Sun attributes much of his success to having the right people around him, and he hopes to demonstrate his appreciation for the support by delivering more glory over the next two years.
"For a long time, my leaders, coaches, professors of my doctoral program and my family have all been working to get the best out of me. Without them, nothing would be close to possible," he said.
"Next year might be my last Olympics so I will try to have a good ending to repay my family.
"We shouldn't live in the past. It's only when we make an effort to live up to our reputation and responsibilities can we make progress."
XINHUA in Kunming