The 16-year-old from Hangzhou on China’s east coast knocked more than a second off Australian rival Stephanie Rice’s 400m winning time at Beijing in 2008 – and ended the Games having made her mark as a young swimmer of incredible talent, along with the USA’s Missy Franklin, 17, and 15-year-old Ruta Meilutyte of Lithuania.
But it was not Ye’s tender years or even her impressive speed that made headlines after her stunning performance in the Aquatics Centre – it was what happened in the final 100m of that race.
Trailing the then world champion Elizabeth Beisel by almost a second, Ye overhauled her American rival, swimming the final 50m in 29.25s – faster than Beisel’s training partner Ryan Lochte managed when he won the men’s 400m.
It was a comparison the world’s media were swift to make, and served to highlight her extraordinary prowess in the pool – helped somewhat by a growth spurt of 12cm in the last two years and a perfect power-to-weight ratio. Ye’s time was seven seconds faster than the one she clocked at the 2011 World Championships.
Three days later she added the 200m Individual Medley gold to the 400m titlein an Olympic record time of 2min 7.57sec, the third fastest in history. Though she was third into the pool, her staggering freestyle performance in the final 50m once again blew away her rivals, stunning the 17,500 spectators packed into the Aquatics Centre venue.
Ye, both of whose parents were themselves athletes, was reportedly talent-spotted at the age of six by a teacher who noted her unusually large hands and feet. After success in provincial competitions and a period of intensive training in Australia with top coaches Ken Wood and Denis Cotterell, she made the China national squad by 12.
At the 2010 Asian Games she swam the fastest time in the world for the 200m Individual Medley, and took gold in the same event at the following year’s World Aquatics Championships in Shanghai.
A shy but intense competitor, Ye recognizes her own weaknesses, particularly in breaststroke and her turning technique. Worryingly for her rivals, she says she is still improving .