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TOKYO (Reuters) - China's 4x200 freestyle relay team thought beating Canada to win bronze was a realistic target ahead of the women's final on Thursday, so winning gold in a world record time was beyond their wildest expectations.
The team of Zhang Yufei, who broke the Olympic record to win the 200m butterfly gold an hour earlier, Yang Junxuan, Tang Muhan and Li Bingjie took an early lead and fought hard to hold it, with Li fighting off a surging Katie Ledecky to keep ahead of the United States and clock a winning time of 7:40.33.
The United States clocked 7:40.73 to win silver ahead of hot favourites Australia in 7:41.29.
All three teams finished under the previous world mark of 7:41.50 which the Australians set in 2019.
“We didn’t expect to win the race because the Americans and Australians are so strong," Zhang said, who only found out she had to swim in the relay after her butterfly race.
"The team strategy was to come third. Our plan was to beat the Canadian team for third place. That’s what we planned for.
The Chinese team gleefully hugged each other and celebrated on the podium, singing their national anthem behind red masks as their flag was raised.
The four later wrapped themselves in a large Chinese flag to pose for photos alongside the pool deck.
At a news conference following the medal ceremony, the team shrugged off a question about how many times the four had been drug tested over the past year.
China's swimming programme was put under the microscope again after triple Olympic champion Sun Yang was handed a four-year ban for doping violations in June.
The programme's reputation was tarnished by a series of doping cases in the 1990s but Beijing has since pledged to weed out drug cheats and the Chinese Swimming Association has regularly stated its opposition to the use of banned substances.
Li said they were tested constantly ahead of the Games.
"Our drug tests have never stopped," she said. "According to statistics, Chinese athletes are subject to the largest number of drug tests in the world."
(Reporting by Farah Master; additional reporting by Aaron Sheldrick in Tokyo)