A danger lurks for the U.S. women's swimming team. It is hidden in the shadow of their London success, threatening their future hopes. And it wears red.
Team USA is enjoying great success in women's swimming, headlined by Dana Vollmer, Rebecca Soni, Allison Schmitt and Missy Franklin. The youthful women have won nine medals thus far and are primed for more, and they paint a bright future.
But the Chinese team is on the rise again.
China's women swimmers have medaled four times themselves at the 2012 Olympics, including three golds and one world-record performance by 16-year-old Ye Shiwen.
Shiwen is China's answer to Franklin.
Though she is participating in fewer events at the 2012 Games, she has certainly brought the spotlight to the Chinese team. The teen phenom is younger than Franklin and has some room to grow. They have not gone head to head yet—discounting the 4x200-meter freestyle relay Team USA dominated in London—but these two could be at the head of a budding rivalry in the coming years.
Of course, there are questions about her jaw-dropping performance in the 400-meter individual medley. Shiwen's record-breaking swim in the event has aroused doping suspicion around the world.
China has decried the notion that Shiwen cheated, but there is a reason for suspicion above the radical improvement in her swim. Doping drama is nothing new for the Chinese. The past 20 years have seen their swimming teams wracked with cheating scandals that have caused a fall from grace.
No Chinese team member has tested positive for any performance enhancing drugs in London, however, and Shiwen insists none has occurred. If the Chinese prove to be winning on legitimate talent alone, the Americans had better take notice.
Yiwen improved her time by a stunning seven seconds from a year ago, not unlike another phenomenal swimming athlete who has become an American icon: Michael Phelps.
NBC's Bob Costas mentioned on Tuesday evening that Phelps had a similar improvement as a teenager, a response to a Chinese doctor's retaliatory accusation of doping against Phelps. Just look at how his career turned out.
Could this be the start of a big, red wave aimed at American swimming?
China is a fiercely competitive country, especially when it comes to water sports. That rise to swimming prominence in the '90s was followed by a similar ascent by Chinese diving teams. America once dominated diving, but nowadays they struggle to get to the podium in Olympic competition while China thrives.
The Chinese team won more medals at the 2011 FINA world championships than the United States, and they are just getting started in swimming. That is a dramatic four-year turnaround from 2007, when they had less than half of Team USA's tally.
While it may seem improbable given the success American women have had thus far, there certainly seems to be an element of fear behind the doping accusations—unsurprising considering China's competitive ascensions tend to be swift and devastating.
Team USA seems to have a solid grip on swimming, but nothing lasts forever. At the very least, a highly competitive Chinese women's team would provide for some drama with these fantastic American swimmers.
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