Wrapped in gold, William Yang looked on top of the world. But a smile can sometimes be deceiving.
The University of Sydney Architecture, Design and Planning student was standing on the podium after winning the 50m butterfly at the World University Games in Napoli in July with a blistering time of 23.32 seconds – a time that would have won gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games.
It’s a proud addition to the resumé, but the newly-crowned gold medallist still wasn’t satisfied.
‘‘If you look back at the footage in the finals and semi-finals for the 50m butterfly, you won’t see too much excitement on my face after the race because in my head I was thinking, ‘How am I swimming so bad?’’’ Yang said.
‘‘I don’t think the World Uni Games were actually a success for me because it was only the 50m butterfly that I won, and even then it wasn’t my best time.’’
Competitive to his core, Yang demands perfection from himself. Even in his most glorious moment, the thought of improvement still lingered in the back of his mind.
Having underachieved in the build up to his gold medal victory, Yang was still reeling over his efforts in the 100m backstroke, where he failed to qualify for the final.
‘‘Going into the race (50m butterfly), I was quite angry and frustrated because of my performance in the 100m backstroke,’’ he said.
A red-hot favourite in the 50m butterfly, all eyes were on Yang and there was nowhere to hide as the roaring crowd created an electric atmosphere that made it impossible to hear his own thoughts. The drama from his previous races played on his mind and added to the spectacle, missing the start in the 50m backstroke, while his cap broke his streamline in the 100m backstroke. But solid preparation, combined with the hottest hits on his Spotify playlist, helped Yang shrug off a nervy start to the race he was made to win.
‘‘In the 50m butterfly, I was certainly feeling a bit of pressure going into the race. My first stroke wasn’t a clean breakout, I was maybe one underwater kick short and at that point I thought the race was over,’’ Yang said, critically analysing his every move.
‘‘But I got that out of my head and I just thought ‘I have to get this done’, and then I powered my way through.
‘‘I try to keep everything as normal as possible in the build-up and try to forget that I’m racing that night. Thinking about the race all day makes it harder because you drain all your energy and become mentally exhausted. I like to keep it simple and normal.
‘‘Before the race I put my headphones on, get in the zone, get angry and ready to race.’’
On reflection, Yang learned to appreciate the weight of his achievement, becoming the nation’s 23rd gold medal winner at the event and joining an illustrious group to reach the same feat including Australian swimming greats Mark Kerry and Cate Campbell, leading him to hang his World Uni Games medal from the top of his trophy cabinet.
‘‘World Uni Games is definitely my career highlight so far because it’s an international gold. It may not be an Olympic event, but it’s a huge box I get to tick, winning gold and getting the job done,’’ he said.
And the boxes have been ticking for the rising star on his path to what seemed to be an unimaginable dream – the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Yang started to create shockwaves at the Australian Championships in April where he beat Mitch Larkin, regarded as the nation’s elite backstroker, in the 50m backstroke to win gold.
It was no fluke either – Yang backed it up by winning the 50m butterfly, also falling second to Larkin in the 100m backstroke at the same event. This was all achieved by an athlete who only took up competitive swimming a couple of years ago.
In his early career, adversity threw itself at the promising swimmer and it has been an incredible turnaround considering his situation only twelve months ago.
‘‘I had quite a rough 2018. I moved clubs, I changed coaches. I came second in the 50m butterfly at the Commonwealth Games trials and it was a missed opportunity. Then I missed the FINA Short Course World Championships team at the end of last year and I thought I really could have made that,’’ he said. ‘‘After 2018, it was about proving a lot of people wrong. I just thought I had to show everyone what I’ve got.’’
Now training under the wing of former backstroke world record holder Bobby Hurley, Yang has ramped up his commitment over the past two years with four morning sessions in the pool, two aerobic sessions and two gym sessions, with the bright lights of Tokyo shining in his eyes.
‘‘The Olympics are a life-time goal. It would be a dream come true. I’ve thought about it since the day I started swimming,’’ he said. ‘‘It’s all in the preparation. Right now there is still plenty of time before trials so I’m really going to make the most of it to get where I need to be.’’
Study took priority in high school, but an Olympic dream is now hogging up six days of the week, all while balancing a laborious university degree and any scraps of a social life that he can.
A member of the Elite Athlete Program (EAP), the pressures of university have been alleviated enormously for Yang, who aims to take on more of a workload in his studies if he eventually qualifies and attends the 2020 Olympic Games.
‘‘The EAP assists me in getting extensions which helps take the load off and allows me focus on my training,’’ he said.
‘‘My priorities are certainly shifting towards swimming for now with next year’s Olympic Games in mind.’’
Yang will put the books down over the semester break and channel his focus into improving the 23.32 seconds he produced in Napoli, marking the 2020 Olympic trials in July in Adelaide next year as the main event on his calendar. He might have the times on the board and the potential to compete with the elite, but Yang knows it’s all about delivering when it counts.
‘‘Obviously the time (in Napoli) is very good, but on a big stage like the Commonwealth or Olympic Games, every athlete goes through a different mental process and it’s quite challenging for everyone to perform under pressure,’’ he said.
‘‘I did that spectacular time which was great, but it doesn’t guarantee that I’m going to go out next year at the trials and do it again.
‘‘But that is also the beauty of World Uni Games for me because it was all about executing my time, my technique under pressure and I did that on the big stage which is a very promising sign.’’
It’s easy to get caught in the hype, but Yang has remained level-headed and is taking every measure he can to be his best, picking the brains of some of the best swimmers in the world, including Russian Vladimir Morosov and American Michael Andrew. He recognises his turn needs working on, his underwater kick could be better and there’s always room for improvement in his flexibility.
Yang’s ability to own his flaws and demand better from himself give him the blueprint for success, while events like World Uni Games prove he is ready to take his career to the next level. Come Adelaide, William Yang will truly know how far he has come. And he might have one slight advantage on his competitors.
‘‘I’ve never swam badly in Adelaide, so hopefully luck is on my side,’’ he chuckled.