JAKARTA, Indonesia — It’s lucky for Sun Yang that he has born with such enormous shoulders.
His 6-foot-7 frame not only helps him churn through the water, but it also helps him carry a heavy burden that only a handful of elite athletes in the world experience.
As China’s greatest swimmer, the expectation on Sun to win is intense. After all, he’s racing for a country of more than a billion people.
With three Olympic gold medals and nine world titles already, he’s already achieved great heights in his sport and earned the financial security that comes from global sporting success.
He might easily have slipped into retirement, but either he won’t or can’t.
Sun’s immediate focus is the 18th Asian Games in Indonesia, where swimming competition begins Sunday. It doesn’t have the same kudos as the Olympics or the world championships but for Sun, it’s just as important.
As it is for Joseph Schooling, who is competing amid huge expectations from his nation — albeit a smaller one than Sun’s.
The Singapore swimmer announced his arrival on the world stage when he won the 100-meter butterfly gold medal at the 2014 Asian Games, then two years later he beat Michael Phelps for the Olympic title.
Schooling has entered six events in Jakarta, including the 50- and 100-meter butterfly, 50 freestyle, and three relays.
Like Sun in China, Schooling has inspired a whole new generation of wannabe Olympians.
He also has been rewarded for it financially after signing a string of endorsement deals when he turned pro following his last appearance for the University of Texas in the NCAA competition, but is driven by loftier goals to keep on swimming.
“The Asian Games is huge. I’d say it’s up there with the world championships, and a bit under the Olympics,” Schooling said. “It’s always a stage where I’m comfortable competing on.
“Rio obviously changed my life but I like to live in the present even though you can’t forget all the steps you’ve taken to get to where you are, and I want to swim until 2024.”
While Sun and Schooling are the headline acts in the Asian Games pool, there’s plenty of talent in a stacked China roster and a Japan squad led by Rio Olympic 400-meter medley champion Kosuke Hagino.
Kazakhstan’s Dmitriy Balandin was almost unheard of when he won the 200-meter breaststroke at the last Asian Games in 2014, but has a high profile now after winning the gold in Rio.
Sun treats the Asian Games as seriously any other major international competition, and so has set himself a grueling schedule.
Over the six days of swimming, he will compete in five races, attempting to win every freestyle event from the 200 to 1,500, as well as the 4×200-meter relay.
He has won world titles at 200, 400, 800, and 1,500 but never at the same competition and the odds are stacked against him. But he’s making an attempt nonetheless. And, as his coach Denis Cotterill says, it’s just tough luck if he loses.
“It’ll be harder at next year’s worlds so he’ll just have to suck it up,” Cotterill said.
After winning the 200 at the 2016 Olympics, Sun had almost given up on the 1,500, in which he holds the world record, primarily because of the extra training it demands.
He lost some condition but has been working harder to get it back and the Asian Games will be his chance to see whether he has a future in the event.
“The first race is always a bit struggle but he’s got enough races to work his way into form,” Cotterill said. “We’ve just had the Europeans (championships) and the Pan Pacs, so everyone in the world is posting their times. This is the final puzzle in the world of swimming where everyone gets the opportunity to post their times and see where you stand one year before the world champs.”