JAKARTA (Reuters) - Teenager Rikako Ikee became the first swimmer to win six gold medals at a single Asian Games on a thrilling final night in the Jakarta pool which left continental powers Japan and China with 19 gold medals apiece.
Three-times Olympic champion Sun Yang also completed a remarkable four-gold sweep and 16-year-old Wang Jianjiahe a freestyle distance triple for China in the 400m, while Yasuhiro Koseki won his third breaststroke gold in the 50m.
The battle for Asian supremacy therefore came down to the final event of the meet, the men’s 4x100 metres medley relay which China won in dramatic fashion by four hundredths of a second to give Xu Jiayu his fifth Jakarta gold.
Japan shaded meet honours with 52 medals to China’s 50 but, more importantly, will take home confidence that their swimming programme is on track for a good showing at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Ikee looks set to be one of the faces of that Games after her victory in the 50 metres freestyle final gave her the biggest haul of swimming gold medals in Asian Games history.
“I was the most nervous before this race,” the 18-year-old said after just beating China’s Liu Xiang to the wall in 24.53 seconds in the 50m freestyle.
“I really didn’t think I was going to win but I absolutely did not want to lose. My time was okay but the big thing was that at the end I didn’t give up.”
Only North Korean shooter So Gin-man, who won seven golds and a silver in New Delhi in 1982, has won more titles at one Asiad but Ikee, having also won two relay silvers, equalled his record tally of eight medals.
Her close win over Liu, who swam a world record time in the 50m backstroke earlier this week, added the freestyle sprint title to those she won in the 100m freestyle, 50m and 100m butterfly as well as the 4x100 freestyle and medley relays.
All six gold medals came in Games’ record times and her achievement was all the more remarkable for the fact that she came to Jakarta straight after the Pan Pacific championships, where she won a gold, two silvers and a bronze.
Sun arrived in Indonesia hoping to win five gold medals as he began his two-year drive towards Tokyo and, while he came up short in a relay, his feat in winning the 200m-400m-800m-1,500m freestyle was impressive.
There was never any real doubt that he would complete the set despite Vietnamese silver medallist Nguyen Huy Hoang’s brave swim and he kicked on with four laps to go to clinch a third straight 1,500m title in 14 minutes 58.52 seconds.
The 26-year-old was reduced to tears after winning the race at a distance in which he won a London Olympic gold medal six years ago but no longer trains for.
“It is not easy for me to remain dominant in an event for three Asian Games,” he said through the tears.
“I was a bit rusty and exhausted after 4x100m freestyle relay. I did think about quitting the event but I just tried to do my best with my endurance.”
Singapore’s double butterfly champion Joseph Schooling had been the only gold medallist in Jakarta from outside China and Japan but Kim Seo-young gave South Korea a boost ahead of their hosting of next year’s world championships.
The 24-year-old was also reduced to tears after winning the 200m individual medley in 2.08.34, depriving Yui Ohashi a second gold of the Games and the chance to seal the top of the medal table for Japan.
That sent the Sino-Japanese gold medal race down to the men’s medley relay where champion faced off against champion in a sensational race which was won by China in 3.29.99.
World champion Xu’s feat in winning all three backstroke titles and two relay golds in Jakarta will inevitably be overshadowed by the exploits of Ikee and Sun but he was delighted with it nonetheless.
“It’s unbelievable, I want cry to release the pressure,” he said after matching compatriot Shen Jianqiang record tally for men’s swimming at the 1990 Beijing Asian Games.
“I have given so much to swimming,” he added. “Now is the time to reap the harvest.”
Reporting by Nick Mulvenney, editing by Toby Davis