World and Olympic champion Sun Yang, displaying the six gold medals and one silver he won at the China National Games last September in Tianjin, is the one to watch when the China National Swimming Championships open on Friday in Taiyuan.
Sun heads star-studded lineup for nationals, but Ning a no-show
Olympic champion Sun Yang will be there, but Ning Zetao will be a noticeable absentee when China's elite swimmers fight for spots on the Asian Games team at the upcoming domestic trials.
The annual Chinese Swimming Championships, a qualifier for the 2018 Indonesia Asian Games, open on Friday with 469 athletes competing in 34 individual and seven relay events over six days at Shanxi Sports Center Natatorium in Taiyuan, the capital of Shanxi province.
Winners will automatically make the country's Asian Games team.
As China's first and only men's Olympic champion swimmer, freestyle specialist Sun will spearhead a high-profile roster, including men's 100m backstroke Olympic silver medalist Xu Jiayu and women's 50m backstroke world champion Fu Yuanhui.
The championships are considered a crucial barometer of form ahead of expected showdowns against Japanese and South Korean rivals at the Asiad.
After pulling through a tough 40-day training program in Sydney under renowned distance freestyle coach Dennis Cotterel, Sun has been gradually regaining his top form, said national team manager Cheng Hao.
"His overseas training went really well and he will deliver very good performances at the trials," Cheng said at the recent launch of the championships in Beijing.
Sun rose to stardom at the 2011 worlds in Shanghai by winning the 800m and 1,500m free. In 2012, he cemented his status as the country's top swimming star by winning golds in the 400m and 1,500m at the London Olympics. Sun added to his distance collection by winning the 200m free at the 2016 Rio Games.
Boasting excellent stroke efficiency and aerobic endurance, the 26-year-old has set his sights on expanding his supremacy in freestyle from distance to sprint events at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics after publicly revealing his aspiration to dig harder in the 100m while recovering his stamina for the 800m free, which will make its Olympic debut in Tokyo.
Having not won an international title in the 1,500 since the 2013 worlds, Sun said he hasn't given up the grueling event, and the reunion with his long-term Chinese mentor Zhu Zhigen, an endurance training expert, has raised expectations for Sun's resurgence at that distance.
Due to a disagreement over the management of his commercial affairs and private life, Sun ended a nine-year partnership with Zhu in 2014.
Sun is expected to compete in all five individual free events - from 100m to 1,500m - in Taiyuan, as well as his Zhejiang team's relay events.