Two clunky and heartfelt interviews was all it took to transform 20 year old Chinese swimmer Fu Yuanhui from also-swam to social media star.

The backstroker had climbed out of the Rio pool after the 100 metre final and was dragged aside by China Central Television for a post race interview. Fu began by explaining that she was pleased with her personal best time, even though she had not won a medal — only to be told by the interviewer that she had indeed tied for a bronze medal.

The outpouring of surprise, honesty and geekiness that followed turned Fu into a star of social media. Within hours, her following on blog site Weibo had increased sevenfold to 3.5 million.

In TV interviews after the semi finals, and again after the final, Fu was a mess of girlish grimacing and gurning. In once clip she is seen waddling away like a penguin.

“Only ghosts know what I have endured in the past three months. Sometimes I thought I was going to die. The training sessions for the Olympics are a fate worse than death,” she said at one point.

And she used a comic phrase – “I used all my prehistoric energy” – to insist that she had been giving her all in the semis. The phrase translates roughly as ‘The Force’ in the “Star Wars” movies.

That Fu’s time in the finals was faster even than her previous race endeared her still further to millions of new fans.