Sports

14 year old sets swimming Para world record

The 2019 World Para Swimming Championships kicked off last Monday in London, and spectators didn’t have to wait long for excitement and drama to set in.

The women’s 400m freestyle S6 final, a classification of disability for the athletes, was the second medaling event of the championship, and witnessed a newcomer, 14-year-old Jiang Yuyan (蒋裕燕) of China, facing off against Paralympic champion and world record holder Yelyzaveta Mereshko of Ukraine.

Jiang came into the competition with a time of 5:31.44, and had put up a time of 5:24.92 in her heat that morning, finishing nearly one and a half seconds behind Mereshko, but qualifying for finals in second place. Because eight out of the nine swimmers in the heat would move on to the finals, the pace wasn’t exactly cutthroat, and neither woman was close to Mereshko’s world record of 5:14.69.

The finals of the women’s 400m freestyle S6 began with Mereshko having the best start off the blocks (Jiang taking more than a half-second longer). Using the momentum from her start, along with a high stroke rate, Mereshko turned at the first wall nearly two whole seconds ahead of the entire field — a lead which only increased in the subsequent lap.

At the 200m mark, Mereshko had shaken off virtually everyone, and was several body lengths ahead of all of her competitors, save Jiang. The split showed that Jiang had not only been chasing Mereshko’s punishing pace, but had gained on her. Though she lost some ground to Mereshko during the following length, it was Jiang who pushed off the wall first heading into the last lap, 0.2 seconds ahead of the pre-race favorite.

The last lap saw both women fighting for gold, with Mereshko pushing as hard as she could, but Jiang maintaining her slim lead. Mustering up all the strength she had left, Jiang surged ahead even further in the last 25 meters, finishing with a time of 5:13.32, over 4 seconds in front of Mereshko, and setting a new world record.

Jiang then went on to win the women’s 100m freestyle S6 final (just ahead of Mereshko again) and set a new championship record. She also took bronze in both the 100m backstroke S6 and 50m freestyle, setting a new Asian record in the latter. In her final event, the women’s 50m butterfly, she once again took first place, breaking another world record in the process.

Life wasn’t always this like this for Jiang. When she was only four years old, she was run over by a truck. The sheer size and weight of the vehicle crushed the bones of the limbs trapped under it, and after being rushed to the hospital, doctors amputated her right leg and arm. Even after the procedure, bone overgrowth in the residual limbs necessitated many more visits to the hospital. Attempting to aid her recovery and future growth, doctors suggested Jiang try swimming. Her mother enrolled her in a swim program during summer break in 2012, and she’s been in the water ever since.

The journey to a world record was not an easy endeavor. In a translated interview with local media First Hand Investigation (later published by The Daily Mail), Jiang’s mother recalls that some of the other kids cried, calling her daughter “half-a-person,” and told her not to return to the pool. Nevertheless, Jiang persevered, saying that “some kids would cry because they choked on water and would not want to keep swimming. I wasn’t like that. I just picked myself up and kept going.”

In 2015, she became the national champion in the 50m butterfly. Two years later, she placed first in six separate events domestically and won the 100m freestyle at the 2017 Asian Youth Para Games in Dubai. Now, Jiang is not only a world champion three times over, but a holder of two world records as well. “In the water, I don’t need prosthetics, I don’t need a crutch,” she states. “I can rely on my own strength to determine my direction and goal.”