By Stephen J. Thomas
SYDNEY, Australia, October 30. BACK in 2004, one of the most publicized false starts in men's swimming history was that of Ian Thorpe in the 400-meter freestyle prelims at the Aussie Olympic Trials. It has been well documented that the world-record holder and Olympic champ still got an opportunity to swim that event in Athens and went on to take his second consecutive Olympic gold medal.
The day before Thorpe's triumph in Athens, a 14-year-old South Korean, Tae-Hwan Park, also lined up in one of the earlier heats of the 400 freestyle. This tender teen, indeed the youngest member of the South Korean team, was unfortunately disqualified for a false start in his only opportunity to race in the harshest introduction to the biggest meet on the planet.
Despite this humble beginning, the Seoul-based high school student was soon showing some form in the pool just a few months after the Olympics, taking the silver medal in the 1,500 freestyle at the FINA World Cup in Melbourne in November of 2004.
In 2005, his momentum picked up as he set three Korean national records at the East Asian Games in October and the following month, when Park revisited Australia, caught my eye with two gold medals in the 400 and 1,500 freestyles, along with a silver behind a red-hot Ryk Neethling in the 200 free at the FINA World Cup here in Sydney.
At the World Short Course Championships in Shanghai this April, Park showed he had what it takes to succeed against major international competition, taking silver medals in both the 400 (3:40.43) and 1,500 freestyles (14:33.26). Until this stage in his career, the majority of his competition had been swum in the 25-meter pool, so much so he was being called the "short-course champ" back home in Seoul. That was all about to change.
Park affirmed his world-class status with some seminal performances at the Pan Pacific Championships in Canada in August. First in the 400 freestyle, he pulled away from Klete Keller, the American record-holder and the Olympic bronze medalist over the distance, producing a powerful final 50-meter finish to stop the clock in 3:45.72 (and move to 9th all-time performer in the event). It was his country's first gold medal in a major long course international meet.
Not content with one victory, Park also added another gold to his growing medal collection in the 1,500 freestyle. He showed plenty of poise in the race to sit on the shoulder of the veteran Erik Vendt for most of the race, then pushed past with two laps to go and won by just over one second in very solid time of 15:06.11. One of the impressive parts of Park's repertoire is his speed, and the baby-faced assassin showed just that ability in producing a PR of 1:47.51 to add a silver medal behind Keller in the 200 freestyle.
Park, who suffered from asthma as a child, started swimming as a five year old to help improve his condition much like a number of other world-class swimmers. He trains at the South Korean National Training Centre in Taenung, east of Seoul and is only 175 cm (5-9) tall and 58kg (128 lbs) and will soon turn seventeen.
Park has a PR of 15:00.32 for the 1,500, posted at the East Asia Games in 2005 and on his current form will surely break the 15-minute barrier in the coming months. He has been quoted in Korean media as looking forward to the chance to compete against world record-holder Grant Hackett for the first time at the World Championships in Melbourne next March.
Perhaps it might be a little early for the confident teenager to challenge the four-time world champ over 30-laps but the South Korean team is quietly confident that Park has the goods to produce that country's first Olympic medal by the time Beijing comes around in 2008. In the meantime, we will get another look at Park in early December where he is slated to compete in the XV Asian Games in Doha, Qatar.