The Korea Herald


Swimming sensation Hwang Sun-woo adds world title to expanding resume

By Yonhap

Published : Feb. 14, 2024 - 08:53

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Hwang Sun-woo of South Korea celebrates during the medal ceremony after winning the men's 200-meter freestyle title at the World Aquatics Championships at the Aspire Dome in Doha on Tuesday. (AFP-Yonhap) Hwang Sun-woo of South Korea celebrates during the medal ceremony after winning the men's 200-meter freestyle title at the World Aquatics Championships at the Aspire Dome in Doha on Tuesday. (AFP-Yonhap)

At the ripe age of 20, Hwang Sun-woo has already made plenty of South Korean swimming history.

He added another feather to his cap in Doha on Tuesday, as he earned the gold medal in the men's 200-meter freestyle at the World Aquatics Championships.

By touching the pad in 1:44.75, Hwang became the first South Korean swimmer to win a medal at three world championships in a row. He won silver in 2022 and bronze in 2023.

Danas Rapsys of Lithuania took home the silver medal in 1:45.05, and Luke Hobson of the United States won the bronze medal in 1:45.26.

Hwang has also tied Park Tae-hwan for most world championships medals by a South Korean swimmer. Park won 400m freestyle gold medals in 2007 and 2011, and also grabbed silver in the 200m freestyle in 2007.

Hwang will have a shot at breaking the tie with Park on the weekend in the men's 4x200m freestyle relay. Among Hwang's teammates will be Kim Woo-min, the 400m freestyle champion in Doha from Sunday.

Hwang and Kim have made history together, giving South Korea multiple gold medals at a single world championship for the first time.

Hwang entered the national consciousness during the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. As a raw 18-year-old, Hwang set an Asian record in the 100m freestyle with 47.56 seconds in the semifinals, and became the first Asian swimmer to reach the final in that race since 1956. But he posted a worse time in the final, with 47.82 seconds, to finish in fifth place.

In the 200m final, Hwang was on a world record pace at the halfway turn and remained in the lead with 50m to go. But he faded away badly over the home stretch and ended up in seventh place with 1:45.26. Hwang's time from the heats, 1:44.62, was the new world junior record and would have been good enough for the bronze medal in the final.

The inexperienced teen failed to manage his races in Tokyo but these performances provided a glimpse into things to come.

Less than a year later in Budapest, Hwang captured world championship silver in the men's 200m freestyle. He followed that up with bronze in July 2023 in Fukuoka, Japan, with a national record of 1:44.42.

In September 2023, Hwang made his first Asian Games a memorable one, grabbing six medals -- two each of gold, silver and bronze. In winning the 200m freestyle gold, Hwang broke his own national record by 0.02 second. He reached the podium in every race he entered, and his six medals were the second most by a South Korean swimmer at a single Asiad, behind only Park Tae-hwan's seven medals, first in 2006 and again in 2010.

Hwang's win in Doha served as proof for the swimmer's maturity and savvy.

He had the fastest reaction time at the start and led the race through the first 100m at 50.57 seconds. Hobson was right behind at 50.79 seconds.

The American then charged out in front at the 150m turn, with a split of 26.66 seconds pushing him into the lead at 1:17.45. Hwang covered that stretch in 27.29 seconds and fell to second place at 1:17.86.

Hwang, however, was smartly pacing himself for the home stretch. He caught Hobson and then held off Rapsys for the gold medal, after coming home in 26.89 seconds -- the fastest final split in the race. Hobson faded away badly with a final split of 27.81 seconds to settle for bronze, and Rapsys' 26.92-second split wasn't enough to catch Hwang.

Cynics may attach an asterisk to Hwang's victory in Doha because neither of the past two world champions, David Popovici of Romania and Matthew Richards of Britain, competed in the 200m freestyle. Popovici is one of many top-notch swimmers skipping this year's worlds to focus on the Paris Summer Olympics in July. Richards is in Doha but he chose to sit out the 200m freestyle and instead will only race in the 100m freestyle.

They will be on a collision course in Paris this summer, with Tom Dean, the reigning Olympic champion and the 2023 world silver medalist, also likely in contention after skipping the Doha race.

It will be an opportunity for Hwang to prove he can compete against the best and still come out on top.

Park remains the only South Korean swimmer to have won an Olympic medal, with his 400m freestyle gold and 200m freestyle silver in 2008, and silver medals in both races in 2012. (Yonhap)