Champion swimmer, champion human: The joy of Fu Yuanhui
In November, espnW's weekly essay series will focus on giving.
I first heard of Chinese Olympic swimmer Fu Yuanhui when someone on Facebook posted an article about her with the caption: I want to be her best friend. I winced and moved on. For days, I did not click on the link, until I saw even more people posting about her -- always with the same words. She's amazing. I love her. Too real.
Oh, no, I thought. Oh no. I knew exactly where this was going. But I clicked anyway.
When I was in elementary school, I was the only Asian in my grade. On the playground, my classmates pretended to be Chinese, saying things like "ching-chong-chaw" and doing kung-fu. At my desk, I seethed but could not explain why -- only that it came from some deep feeling that my classmates were pretending to be Chinese the way kids pretend to be aliens or superheroes.
One afternoon, my classmates had gathered around me, fascinated by my eyes. "They're different," one of them announced, and then they all stepped in closer. I wondered if I had became a caricature by being fully Asian and half-Chinese.
When I grew older, the narrative changed. After college, I spent some time studying Chinese in China, in an attempt to understand my mother's culture. The majority of my male classmates had arrived on a different quest: They wanted a girlfriend.
"Chinese women are beautiful," one of my classmates told me. He handed me his phone. The contacts list was filled with the names of women he'd met clubbing. The album was packed with photographs of him wrapped around each of the women he'd met, their faces green and silver from the flashing lights of the clubs.
"I can't speak the language, I hate the food here and I miss my family," he told me as he swiped through each picture so quickly the faces blurred together, "but I'm not going home until I get a girlfriend."
"They're different from American women," my apartment mate explained when I asked him about the allure. "They're more feminine and more submissive. Perfect wife material."
Chinese women had evolved to mean sexy. I couldn't decide if that was better or worse. Really, it was just about the same as being a caricature, but now served with a side of submission and breasts.
With all of that in mind, I read all the stories and watched interviews of Fu Yuanhui, expecting a celebrity swimmer who was polite and poster beautiful.
The unexpected happened: I too fell in love. I, too, wanted Fu Yuanhui to be my best friend. She wasn't poster-pretty. She was something far better: She was human.
When Fu Yuanhui heard she'd come in third at the 100-meter backstroke finals at the Rio Olympics, she gasped for air, stuttered and then mangled her lanyard from the sheer joy of winning. Her bubbling, over-the-top delight with life was infectious. In the photographs, while other athletes posed for the camera, smiles frozen in place, she clutched her medal mouth open in a silent roar of happiness. She made faces, grinned maniacally.
The moment I truly fell for her was during the women's 4x100-meter medley relay when she emerged from the pool doubled over in pain. Her period left her feeling weak, she told the reporter, and she didn't swim her best. Then, she apologized for her performance and moved on.
Never mind the cultural taboo that exists around periods, particularly in China, where tampons are hard to come by. Never mind the cultural taboos about periods that exist around the world. Fu Yuanhui swam in pain; she felt like she underperformed; she apologized; and that was all simply all there was to it.
Fu Yuanhui didn't give us pretty, she gave us joy so fierce you could feel its power blasting through the camera lens. She didn't give us pitch-perfect celebrity-speak molded to showcase her best self to the press. She gave us herself, her incandescent happiness, her earthly pain.
She showed us it's possible to be loved by the world for simply being yourself. And for this, we loved her, for this we continue to love her: Fu Yuanhui, champion swimmer, champion human.
Shalene Gupta is currently working on a novel about growing up Chinese-Indian in Minnesota. A former Fortune reporter, with an M.S. from Columbia Journalism School, she is currently a freelance writer living in Boston. Follow her @ShaleneGupta