Democracy Dies in Darkness

Early Lead

This Chinese swimmer’s reaction to finding out she medaled deserves a medal itself

By Marissa Payne

August 11, 2016 at 10:27 AM

Fu Yuanhui of China poses with the bronze medal she won for the 100-meter backstroke. (David Gray/Reuters)

Fu Yuanhui woke up in Rio de Janeiro on Wednesday one of the most popular sports figures in China — and she didn’t even win a gold medal. The Chinese swimmer instead took home a bronze medal in the women’s 100-meter backstroke on Monday night, but it was Fu’s reaction to her win that helped make her a viral sensation. Fu only found out she placed third to win a medal while talking to a Chinese reporter after the getting out of the pool.

“What I want to share, even though I did not win a medal,” the 20-year-old began to say on China’s state-run network Tuesday night before being interrupted by the reporter.

“But you got a medal. You are third,” the reporter said.

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“What? Third?!” Fu stammered. “I did not know…”

Before finding out she won, Fu blamed her “short arms” for not placing higher and said she used all her “mystical power,” as she mentioned in another viral interview this week, in the semifinals to justify what she thought was not that stellar of a performance.

After realizing she won, however, her tune changed.

“Well, then I think that’s not bad at all!” she said.

It’s not just her words that have have made Fu one of the Olympics’ standout stars, it’s also her facial expressions, which have spurred memes, emojis and other online activity in China and beyond.

This isn’t Fu’s first Olympics. At age 16, she swam the 100-meter backstroke at the London Games in 2012, but she failed to make the final. In the four years since, Fu not only grew more comfortable in the pool, but also with being herself in front of the camera.

On Wednesday, she gave her newfound fans a special treat, signing onto Weibo, a popular Chinese social media site, where she live-streamed herself eating a breakfast of cupcakes from Rio.

Related: When did gymnastics leotards get so dang sparkly? The history of an Olympic outfit.

“Hi everyone!” she said to the camera (via Quartz) around 9 a.m. local time. “I’m still a bit sleepy.”

Fu chatted with fans for 60 minutes while munching on cupcakes and occasionally burping. But when some the roughly 10 million fans started sending her virtual gifts through the site that cost them very real money, Fu got serious — or maybe as serious as Fu gets. According to Quartz, Fu instructed her fans to save their money “to buy snacks” or “save some kittens and puppies.”

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Marissa Payne writes for The Early Lead, where she focuses on what she calls the “cultural anthropological” side of sports, a.k.a. “mostly the fun stuff.”

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