Now she is one of China's best hopes to bring home a gold in London this summer as part of a new wave of Chinese athletes who will be making their first appearance at the Olympics.
"Every athlete wants to become an Olympic champion. And, of course, I am no exception," Ye told state media in October at the Chinese National City Games, an event held for athletes aged under 20 and seen as a test track for China's future Olympians.
But in the 200m individual medley, Ye posted 2 minutes 10.01 seconds, far from her top-ranked time of 2:08.90 at the world championships in Shanghai.
"I need to work on my breaststroke and butterfly skills," she said.
In a country where medal prowess and national pride go hand in hand, she has even been profiled by the ruling Communist Party's top newspaper, the People's Daily, which last month named her one of China's top new stars to watch in London.
"She's one of the other great discoveries following the (2008) Beijing Olympics," it wrote in a profile, describing her career trajectory to date as "rocket-like".
"After setting the world on fire in Shanghai, Ye is the new star most worth keeping an eye on," the newspaper added.
At the world championships in Shanghai Ye beat Alicia Coutts of Australia who claimed silver, while former world champion Ariana Kukors of the United States took bronze.
Ye, who turned 16 in March, comes from an ordinary working-class background in the affluent eastern tourism hub of Hangzhou, best known for its famous lake.
Ye's passion for the sport started young, after a teacher noticed she had bigger hands and legs than other children of her age. In 2007, she began swimming for the Zhejiang provincial swimming team, and then in 2008 joined the national team.
Ye took only one day off after the world championships and then spent 50 days training in Australia.
"The training days in Australia were really harsh, but it was really helpful," she told the China Daily.
Ye told her mother she wanted to become a swimmer at the tender age of seven, according to Chinese media, and her parents have made great efforts to support her calling, and always speak to her by telephone before and after races.
Her mother Ning Yiqing told a Chinese newspaper that her daughter was not spoiled and never cried as a child even when she fell over.
"Results are not important, but you should always enjoy the taking part," Ning says she has always told her daughter, according to the Nanfang Daily.