The University of Utah swimmer climbs out of the pool after a workout and no one pays any particular notice. Wang Xiaohong may be a hero in her homeland, but now she is studying abroad. The Janet Evans of China has traded meters for yards and Chinese for English - and the apartment her government lets her stay in as a token of the People's respect for her silver-medal performance at last summer's Olympic Games in Barcelona is sitting idle while she lives in a dorm in Salt Lake City with a roommate from California named Amy Thompson.
"She's Mormon and she's very nice," says Wang. "And she watches a lot of TV."So does Wang. She says it is good for her English, as is ordering the chicken sandwich, her personal favorite, at McDonald's and the sausage pizza at Pizza Hut. Mastering English is one of the main reasons she decided to study and swim at an American university. Another reason is to get a real taste of America.
"Magazines and newspapers don't cut it," she says, working on her slang.
Whatever her reasons for coming to America, Utah swim coach Jim Wilson is glad she wound up in Salt Lake City. Most coaches are happy to have an Olympic medal-winner swimmer on the team, and he is one of them. Even if he is mildly bewildered.
"This isn't some athlete from some Third World Country chasing the All-American dream," Wilson says. "She's a goddess over there (in China). When she goes back they give her a driver and a car. The whole country knows who she is.
"I'm thinking, what's she doing here on an athletic scholarship? You know those suckers work out to about $1.50 an hour."
The Utes came to the attention of Wang - and Wang came to the attention of the Utes - three Christmases ago when the Utah men's team was observing its traditional holiday "break" in Beijing, China's capital. Contacts were made, a correspondence ensued, and, with the eventual OK of the Chinese government and the Chinese National Swim Team, Wang was given her travel visa to the United States.
She swam with the Utes for one quarter last year and then returned to China to train for the Olympics. Barcelona was good to her. She just missed a medal in the 100-meter butterfly, finishing fourth, and won her silver medal in the 200-meter butterfly when she was barely beaten to the wall by Summer Sanders of the United States.
Wilson wouldn't have been surprised if he'd never seen his Olympic swimmer again after that. But after going home to China for a month following the Olympics - where she was showered with gifts and attention and autograph requests from what seemed like every Chinese citizen - all 1 billion of them - Wang got on a jet in late September and showed up at the U. of U. for the first day of classes.
She hasn't been recognized on the street since.
In the pool, of course, she has turned a lot of heads. She is yet to lose in American water. She holds Utah school records in practically every event she has swum - 50- and 100-yard freestyle, 100- and 200-yard butterfly and the 200-yard individual medley. At last weekend's WAC Championships she set three conference records in both butterfly events and the 100 freestyle and all by herself totaled 63 points, more than a third of Utah's team total of 183. At the NCAA women's championships later this month she'll be Utah's Gang of One.
Winning a national title won't be easy even if she is an Olympic medalist. A number of other Olympians will be in the field and the switch from meters to yards means more turns per event and requires a slightly different technique.
And that's not to mention the sheer numbers against her. "There are so many American swimmers good," says Wang, holding her fingers close together to indicate that very little separates them. "That means I have to swim very hard every time."
She sighs. "I think this is not so easy for me," she says, smiling. Switching cultures always has its share of shocks.
One of the best of those shocks, says Wang, has been the addition of variety in her life. In China she started swimming at age 11 and her daily regimen never changed after that. "I did same thing every day," she says. "Sometimes I like to change my life. Change is important to me."
As proof of that, she talks coyly about what she'll eventually get her degree in. She's in Exercise and Sports Science for now, but says, "Maybe I'll become a coach . . . or maybe I want to change my major." Amy Thompson couldn't have said it with any more independence.