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Column by John Lohn
IRVINE, California, August 20. IT'S been nearly eight months since the swimming world returned to normalcy, the high-tech suits sent to the incinerator to create a burnt rubber smell. In that time, it has become clear which athletes benefited considerably from the polyurethane era and which athletes didn't get as much of a boost.
Count South Korean Tae Hwan Park in the segment of swimmers who didn't get a great deal from the high-tech suits. Want proof? Look no further than the results produced by the middle-distance superstar, including his latest foray in international competition. Taking control of the 400 freestyle in the last half of the race, the reigning Olympic champion claimed the Pan Pacific title with a winning mark of 3:44.73. The time is the fastest in the world this year.
While Park registered a faster time during the tech-suit reign, his drops were not as drastic as others in the world. For that reason, his sub-3:45, which followed a silver-medal showing in the 200 free on the opening night of the competition, is all the more impressive. Simply, it's nice to see an athlete utilize sheer skill, not technology.
As the Olympic champion and with his complementary Pan Pacific crown, Park has to be considered the best 400 freestyler in the world right now. At the recent European Championships, French youngster Yannick Agnel and world-record holder Paul Biedermann failed to break 3:46 in the eight-lapper. For Biedermann, who benefited gigantically from the tech suits en route to lowering Ian Thorpe's world record at last year's World Championships, Park's swim has to be considered a warning shot.
The way Park has responded after not even making the final of the 400 free at the World Champs last year has to be appreciated. Some swimmers could have taken the dropoff from Olympic glory poorly and allowed it affect future performances. Instead, Park has embraced the sport's return to textile and made it a point to rise to the top.
Training in South Korea on the way to his Olympic gold medal, Park opted for a different route in his training. Making the leap to another country, Park ventured to Australia and set up shop in Brisbane to work under Michael Bohl. It could have been considered a risk in some circles, but it also can be considered an impressive personal decision. It's never easy moving to a new nation, one with a different language and customs.
"It was good," Park said through a translator. "With Michael Bohl, he's been training me hard. It helps to train in Australia. He's getting me ready for the Asian Games (later this year)."
Although it's hard to believe considering he went 3:44, Park says he is not fully rested for this meet, holding off on his taper for the Asian Games and his encounters with the 200, 400 and 1500 freestyles. If that is the case, the times produced by Park at his next major competition could be eye-opening to say the least.
On his way to securing his first Pan Pacific championship, Park seemingly played with the field. After Canadian Ryan Cochrane tried to bust the race open during its middle stages, Park threw down the gauntlet. He negative split the race, with a time of 1:50.92 for the last four laps. His last 100 meters was covered in 53.95.
Only 20 years old, Park's best days figure to be down the road, almost hard to comprehend. But now that the swimsuit controversy is in the past, it's easier to appreciate the vast talent of this Korean youngster, who probably doesn't get the credit he deserves.
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