Zheng Tao: Armless swimmer who inspired French novel wins Tokyo 2020 gold

After winning the 50m freestyle final on Wednesday, September 1, Zheng Tao said: 'I think this was one of my best races ever'


                            Zheng Tao: Armless swimmer who inspired French novel wins Tokyo 2020 gold
Zheng Tao of Team China competes during the men's 50m butterfly - S5 final on day 3 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)

Chinese para swimmer Zheng Tao now has nine Paralympics medals to his name — six of them are gold medals. At the Tokyo Paralympic Games, he also broke his own 50-meter backstroke S5 world record. The 30-year-old, who picked up two Paralympic medals in the 2016 Rio de Janerio Games and three in the 2012 London Games, set a new Games record on Wednesday, September 1, by recording a time of 30.31 seconds, finishing ahead of Yuan Weiyi and Wang Lichao, who picked up silver and bronze. 

Tao lost his arms due to an electric shock when he was a child. But the “armless swimmer” continues to bedazzle fans of the sport. After winning the 50m freestyle final on Wednesday, September 1, Tao said: “I went all out with no regrets as this is my last race at Tokyo 2020. I think this was one of my best races ever.” His final medal was China's 500th summer Paralympic gold since the 1984 Games in New York City. 

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Tao Zheng of Team China competes in the men’s 50m Freestyle - S5 final on day 8 of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre on September 01, 2021 in Tokyo, Japan. v

Back in 2017, the swimmer said the preparation for the Rio de Janerio Games left him exhausted. “I don’t want to ever swim and train to win again,” he said at the time. “I only want to swim for the pleasure of swimming. So, I’m not going to train regularly next year. For two years, between 2013 and 2014, I was not really training. I would swim for one day and take a week off. I hated training.”

Zheng Tao took up swimming at the age of 14 and in 2010 made his international swimming debut by representing China at the World Championships in Eindhoven, Netherlands. As well as his feats in the Paralympics, he has four IPC Swimming World Championship gold, and two silver, medals to his name. As per Tao’s official Olympics profile, in 2012 he was named one of the Top 10 Personalities of Yunnan, People's Republic of China. He has received the May 4th Youth Medal in China. His performance at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, where he won gold in the S6 100m backstrokes, reportedly provided the inspiration for the 2019 novel 'Murene' by French writer Valentine Goby. In the same Games, Tao suffered a back injury.

Murène by Valentine Goby. (GoodReads)

In an interview about the book -- French for “moray eel” -- Goby said that the story takes place in 1956 in Ardennes, a region in southeast Belgium that extends into Luxembourg, Germany, and France. The lead character François is a twenty-two-year-old who suffers an accident that leaves him disabled. He then finds salvation and purpose in swimming. A GoodReads review of the book says: “It's exceptionally moving at times and almost painfully relatable: the personal trauma the subject experiences, his battle with suicidal nihilism, his piecemeal efforts to make everyday life more manageable and the rejection and seeming impossibility of love.”

Despite Tao’s immense success (against many odds), the 30-year-old is still, as per the Daily Mail, a long way behind China's Paralympic record-holder Xu Qing, who as a para-swimmer picked up ten golds and one bronze in the three Games between Beijing 2008 and Rio 2016.

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