The Chinese backstroke swimmer Fu Yuanhui has become an unexpected star of the Rio Games. Her performances in the pool have been strong — she won a bronze medal in the 100-meter backstroke on Monday. But they have thus far fallen short of the gold standard that has long dominated China’s Olympic quest.
Instead, it is her exuberance out of the water that has endeared her to fans. Rather than mere happiness at her performances, Ms. Fu, 20, exhibits something closer to pure joy, bouncing around and making animated faces.
After the semifinals for the 100-meter backstroke, where her third-place finish qualified her for the finals, she gushed to a reporter, “I used my primordial powers!” The image of her standing poolside with mouth agape has been ubiquitous on the Chinese internet. Asked if she had any expectations for the final, she said she was already satisfied.
Her ecstatic expression captured a rare outlook in Chinese Olympic sports, where the drive for gold has long dominated, and silver is for the first loser. But Ms. Fu seems unlikely to join the ranks of Chinese athletes who are forgotten for not reaching the top of the Olympic podium. Instead, her unbridled happiness at achieving a personal best has resonated widely.
“To exceed one’s self is even better than winning a gold medal,” a commentary in The Beijing News said of Ms. Fu’s performance. Online, pictures of her expressions have been juxtaposed against other Chinese athletes whose grim faces betray the intense pressure of Olympic expectations.
“The reason Fu Yuanhui has been so popular also explains how people today don’t just watch that split second of winning a gold medal,” a commenter in the eastern city of Hangzhou wrote on Weibo. “What’s more important is to enjoy the athletes’ true Olympic spirit.”
After the final for the 100-meter backstroke, Ms. Fu did not realize she had won bronze until informed by a reporter. Rather than express disappointment, she said, “That’s not bad!”
“Although I wasn’t the champion, I surpassed myself,” she told Chinese state television. “I think that’s really good.”
She deadpanned that her “arms are too short” after learning that she had finished just one-hundredth of a second off the silver-medal winning time.
Ms. Fu will return to the Olympic spotlight on Saturday when she swims in the 4×100-meter medley relay. She was part of the Chinese team that won the event last year at the World Championships. Afterward she stood holding her medal with her teammates, and as they smiled determinedly, she bopped around like a human exclamation point.