Growing in Experience, Hwang Sun-Woo Aiming to Be Best Self by Paris

POPOVICI David ROU Gold Medal, HWANG Sunwoo KOR Silver Medal, DEAN Tom GBR Bronze Medal 200m Freestyle Men Swimming FINA 19th World Championships Budapest 2022 Budapest, Duna Arena 20/06/22 Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto
Hwang Sun-Wood, left, on the podium of the 200 free at the 2022 World Championships; Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Growing in Experience, Hwang Sun-Woo Aiming to Be Best Self by Paris

Hwang Sun-Woo doesn’t have to be told about the pressure that comes with being a star athlete in South Korea. He knows the historical context, from his performance at the Tokyo Olympics last summer to his medal at the 2022 World Championships, the first since Park Tae-Hwan in 2011.

At 19, he fully understands what it means to be the standard-bearer for a country’s swim program. After all, he literally carried the flag at the Tokyo Olympics, barely two months after his 18th birthday.

“That’s true that a lot of fans and media are putting pressure on it,” Hwang recently told Swimming World, via Zoom and through an interpreter. “… I feel the pressure from the fans and media, but I appreciate it. I use it for my own motivation, to practice more and to improve my times.”

If Hwang is looking for external pressures, he’ll find no shortage of them. There’s his status as the next big hope for South Korea program, the first since Park. There’s his collision course for the foreseeable future with another generational talent in David Popovici, part of a burgeoning cohort of mid-distance freestylers.

HWANG Sunwoo KOR celebrating Gold Medal 200m Freestyle Men Final Abu Dhabi - United Arab Emirates 17/12/2021 Etihad Arena FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) Photo Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

Hwang Sun-Woo at the 2021 FINA Short-Course World Championships; Photo Courtesy: Andrea Staccioli / Deepbluemedia / Insidefoto

But Hwang’s goals are self-directed. His objective over the next two years on the road to the Paris Olympics, he said, is all about himself and lowering his times. Fast as he’s swimming, he’s still learning about how to perform on the international stage and handle big events.

“My personal goal for the Olympics is improving my time for the 200 freestyle,” Hwang said. “I think doing that, that will bring me onto the podium.”

Hwang has already showed that in the 200 free, his signature event. Hwang’s introduction in Tokyo was to blast a Korean record and world junior record of 1:44.62 in prelims, the third time he’d lowered that world junior record dating to the fall of 2020. He wouldn’t quite replicate that speed in semifinals or finals, going 1:45.62 to finish seventh in the final. (His prelims time would’ve won bronze had he duplicated it in the final.)

From that, Hwang learned to pace better, having gone out too quickly in the first 100 and having not enough left on the back end. With the amended race plan, he earned silver at Worlds in 1:44.47.

“I learned from it,” he said, “and what I showed in this World Championships is what I learned.”

That Popovici won the event and took the world junior record, in 1:43.21, is of secondary importance to Hwang. He called it “an amazing” swim from the Romanian, who is 16 months younger than Hwang, and he played down any notion of rivalry between them.

Hwang has plenty to aim for. He set the Korean record in the 100 free in the spring at 47.56 seconds, then finished 11th in 48.08 in Budapest. In addition to the two freestyle records, he owns the Korean mark in the 200 IM (1:58.04) and helped the nation reset both freestyle relay records at Worlds this summer. (He anchored the 400 medley relay record at Olympic Trials last year.)

Over the short course, he owns the 50 and 100 free and 100 IM marks. He won gold in the 200 free at the World Championships last December in Abu Dhabi, prevailing in a gutsy race over a deep field in 1:41.60. (Park still holds that Korean record, a half-second ahead of Hwang.)

Hwang lists Park as a significant inspiration. Though he doesn’t have a personal relationship with the four-time Olympic medalist, watching Park win gold in the 400 freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a formative experience for Hwang, then five years old. He set out to follow that path and reach the same heights.

Given his youth, the Paris Olympics were always the more substantial goal. Wonderful as a medal in Tokyo would’ve been, the primary purpose was to learn about competing on the world stage as part of the preparation for Paris.

Those lessons have already paid dividends. With Worlds looming in the Olympic year, Hwang has positioned the Asian Games, moved to the fall of 2023 in Hangzhou, China, as his major meet next year.

It’s all in service of being the best he can be the next time the Olympics arrive.

“When I went to the Olympics for the first time, I didn’t have much experience,” Hwang said. “But going through the Olympics and two World Championships, I earned a lot of experience from it. With that experience, I’ll be ready for the next World Championships and the Olympics.”

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1 year ago

Sorry, Park Tae-Hwan, how little I like these athletes suspended for doping, but too late after their gold medals and amazing records, alas!

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