In Norwalk, Connecticut, bleary-eyed Shi Jinglin walked out of the hotel elevator on a scorching July early afternoon, yawning, apparently still waking up from her power nap.
“Normally I will be asleep at this hour,” she said. “Napping has been part of my routine for years. I wouldn’t be able to survive those twice-a-day, high-intensity trainings without it.”
Shi spoke to ESPN.com during a photo shoot for ESPN W as the Chinese Olympic swim team practiced for three weeks in southern Connecticut, and China’s top female breaststroke swimmer wasn’t shy about sharing her ambitions for Rio de Janeiro.
“I hope to make it to the (Olympic) podium,” said the first-time Olympian from the eastern Chinese city of Changzhou. In Rio, Shi will compete in 100- and 200-meter individual events, as well as the women’s 4×100-meter medley relay. Sunday will be the 100-meter backstroke.
At last year’s World Swimming Championships in Kazan, Russia, Shi finished fifth in the 100-meter competition, but made headlines after winning a 200-meter bronze medal in a rare three-way tie with Spain’s Jessica Vall Montero and Denmark’s Rikke Moller Pedersen. She was also a member of China’s 4×100-meter women’s medley relay team that won gold.
To Shi, everything about the Olympics is so fresh and intriguing — not only the razzle-dazzle at the world’s largest sporting event, but also the journey leading up to it. For Shi and her Chinese teammates, the routine remained unchanged despite training in Norwalk — practice, eat, rest and repeat. She said he had little time to venture out and explore, not even reaching New York City, which is just one hour’s drive south.
But this tranquil New England town provided a nice respite from the media spotlight at home and in Rio. It also helped the team adjust to the Olympic time zone, which is only an hour ahead of the Eastern Standard Time.
“I struggled,” Shi said of overcoming the 13-hour time difference, her biggest challenge at the moment. “I am slower than the rest of the team. They had fully adjusted to it, whereas I was only halfway through.
“My days and evenings are reversed, and my naps at noon and sleep at night are messed up.
“It feels as if my soul is wandering outside my body,” she joked on her personal Weibo (a Twitter-like Chinese social media platform).
She broke the metronome of her routine during an ESPN W photo shoot. “I didn’t bring any cosmetics with me,” she jokingly pleaded with the photographer. “Please don’t show the pimples on my face or make me look too big.”
In the pool, however, Shi is all business. During the underwater filming, she followed the photographer’s instructions and glided tirelessly in every take. “I just realized I look very serious,” she joked after seeing the photos.
Shi demonstrated that intense focus at China’s swimming national championships last April, snatching the 100-meter gold while wearing a suit that was accidentally torn just before the competition.
“It had happened several times before during the practice,” she said. “I just did what I had to do.”
In Rio’s 100-meter breaststroke competition, 19-year-old Lithuanian and defending Olympic champion Ruta Meilutyte will be Shi’s biggest rival. Meilutyte, who won gold four years ago in London, holds a significant lead over Shi in personal record. Another challenger is American Lilly King, also 19, who became the third-fastest American female breaststroker in history during the recent U.S. Olympic trials.
The women’s 100-meter breaststroke preliminary heats start Sunday.
Shi said her biggest focus, though, must be herself.
“My tactics and strategies are designed based on my own pace,” She said. “I have to avoid being forced into full speed at the beginning, as well as losing steam at the final sprint. Everything before a major event is to maintain your competitiveness. In Rio, we’ll do whatever it takes to win.”