By John Lohn
MELBOURNE, Australia, March 24. HE'S been touted as the world's next great freestyler, at least over the middle and long-distance events. Now, the hype has been legitimized. On the home turf of Grant Hackett, Korea's Tae-Hwan Park surged splendidly down the stretch and absolutely overwhelmed the field for gold in the 400 freestyle.
There was a time when Australia had a stranglehold on the 400 freestyle, thanks to the presence of Ian Thorpe and Hackett. These days, it's a Korean teenager who is the man to beat. The dominant performer at the Asian Games late last year, where he won the 200, 400 and 1,500 freestyles, Park gobbled up the competition during the final lap, surging by Tunisia's Ous Mellouli, Hackett and Russian Yury Prilukov. Park was fifth at the 300-meter mark and fourth with a lap to go.
Park covered the event, perhaps his prime distance, in 3:44.30, ahead of the 3:45.12 of Mellouli and the 3:45.43 of Hackett. Mellouli was the bronze medalist in the event two years ago in Montreal while Hackett was the defending champ. Fourth place went to Prilukov in 3:45.47 and American Peter Vanderkaay was fifth in 3:46.36.
By rallying for the win, Park exhibited the traits of a veteran, not a youngster who has stormed to the top of the world. He showed patience and handled the race on his terms, eventually allowing his late speed to dominate. As important, he demonstrated a great deal of stamina, a scenario that bodes well for the 1,500 later this week. It's still not known whether he's a strong 400 or 1,500 freestyler.
"When I saw my name on the screen I forgot how I was feeling," Park said. "I am the first Korean world champion in (swimming) history. Mentally I feel really tired, but after winning the gold I feel very confident.
"It was good luck that I could make this pace. Hackett was in first since the start, I was trying to follow him but it did not really work. I was able to overcome him just in the last 50."
Hackett, who recently changed coaches from Denis Cotterell to Ian Pope, didn't seem overly bothered by his inability to retain his championship. Instead, he looked ahead to the rest of the meet, which will include a showdown with Park and American Larsen Jensen in the 1,500 free. The metric mile, of course, has been Hackett's domain for years. He's seeking a fifth consecutive world title in the event.