FUKUOKA, Japan -- If there had been any doubt at all as to Hwang Sun-woo's status as the next big thing in South Korean swimming, it was all erased Tuesday in Japan with his second straight world championships medal.
Hwang grabbed the bronze medal in the men's 200-meter freestyle at the World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka, with a time of 1:44.42, the new South Korean record. He finished behind two British swimmers, Matthew Richards (1:44.30) and Tom Dean (1:44.42).
At 20, Hwang has now gone where no other South Korean swimmer has gone before: winning a medal at consecutive world championships.
Even Park Tae-hwan, widely regarded as the greatest South Korean swimmer of all time, never reached the podium at back-to-back worlds. Park won the 400m freestyle gold and the 200m freestyle bronze in 2007, but was shut out at the next event in 2009. He reclaimed his supremacy by winning his second career 400m world title in 2011.
Hwang, at 20, has proven here that he is a worthy successor to Park. And winning his first Olympic medal next summer in Paris no longer seems to be a pipe dream.
Hwang first showed flashes of promise in his Olympic debut in Tokyo two years ago, reaching the finals in the 100m and 200m freestyle races.
In the 200m final, Hwang was in first place through 150m, before running out of steam in the last stretch and finishing in seventh place. It was a performance that exposed Hwang's lack of experience but also showcased his raw talent all at once.
In the 100m, Hwang set an Asian record with 47.56 seconds in the semifinals and then finished fifth in the final, the best Olympic performances by an Asian swimmer in that event since 1956.
Hwang's first major international title came in December 2021, with the 200m freestyle gold at the world short course championships, competed over a 25m pool rather than the Olympic-size 50m pool.
Hwang then had his first long-course breakthrough at last year's world championships in Budapest, where he won the silver medal with the national record time of 1:44.47.
Hwang defended his world short course title in December last year. He then arrived in Fukuoka with the world's fastest 200m freestyle time in a 50m pool this season at 1:44.61, deservedly earning medal contender status.
Hwang had some adventurous time in the 200m heats Monday morning, finishing only one-hundredth of a second faster than the 16th and last qualifier for the semifinals at 1:46.69. Hwang put his head down and went to work in the semifinals, and finished third overall there at 1:45.07.
Hwang's next big event will be the Asian Games starting in September in Hangzhou, China.
On some levels, the Asian Games are more important to South Korean male athletes than world championships, because they can earn exemption from the mandatory military service by winning a gold medal at the continental event.
Hwang has not yet served in the armed forces yet and securing exemption in Hangzhou will ensure an uninterrupted career for the budding star.
Though Hwang was the only Asian medalist in the 200m freestyle here, it doesn't guarantee an Asian Games gold medal for him. Hwang's biggest threat will likely be Pan Zhanle of China, who broke Hwang's Asian record in the 100m freestyle in May and ranked second behind Hwang in the 200m freestyle this season, pre-world championships, at 1:44.65.
Pan missed out on the final in Fukuoka but could be a force in Hangzhou, with swimming races taking place in the same pool where Pan set his record two months ago.
If not at the Asian Games, Hwang's next opportunity to earn military exemption will come at the Paris Olympics in July 2024. A medal of any color will be enough for military exemption.
A medal in Paris will also put Hwang in exalted company alongside Park, so far the only South Korean swimmer with an Olympic medal.
Between the Asian Games and the Olympics will be the 2024 world championships in Doha. It's one major meet after another for Hwang: just more opportunities for him to showcase his talent. (Yonhap)