For a few months now, South Korean swimmer Hwang Sun-woo, still just 19, has been carrying the weight of a nation thirsty for a new star in the pool. And with aplomb and poise rare for athletes his age, Hwang has delivered.
The country and the rest of the swimming world got their first glimpse into Hwang's considerable promise at last year's Tokyo Olympics. A fuller version of the still-improving athlete was on display Monday in Budapest, where Hwang captured his first long course world championship medal with a silver in the 200m freestyle.
Hwang finished in second place with a time of 1:44.47, 1.26 seconds behind the winner, David Popovici of Romania, and 0.51 second faster than Tom Dean of Britain. Hwang became just the second South Korean swimmer, after Park Tae-hwan in 2007 and again in 2011, to win a medal at the biennial worlds.
Park won gold medals in the 400m freestyle in 2007 and 2011, and bronze in the 200m freestyle in 2007.
In Tokyo, Hwang was anointed as the next big thing in South Korean swimming and a potentially worthy successor to Park, as he made it to the finals in the 100m and 200m freestyle in his Olympic debut.
In the 200m final, Hwang was in first place through 150m, before running out of steam in the last stretch and ending up in seventh place.
He had set a then world junior record with 1:44.62 in the heats and finished the final in 1:45.26, while watching four swimmers break 1:45 in the final.
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 race since 1956.
Hwang earned his first major international title last December when he won the 200m freestyle gold at the world short course championships, competed over a 25m pool rather than the Olympic-size 50m pool.
The teenager has now reached the next level in the longer pool.
Hwang arrived in Budapest with the eighth-fastest time in the 200m freestyle this year with 1:45.79.
He posted the exact same time in Sunday's heats to rank second overall. Then Hwang finished third overall in the semifinals after checking in at 1:45.46 later in the day.
Hwang was then able to build on that momentum in Monday's final, achieving his biggest coup to date.
Despite posting the fastest reaction time with 0.61 second, Hwang was in fourth place at the halfway mark. But only Popovici covered the last 100m faster than Hwang, who showed more maturity in managing his race than in Tokyo.
Earlier in Hungary, Hwang helped South Korea set a new national record in the men's 4x100m freestyle relay with a time of 3:15.86. The time wasn't good enough to take the team out of the heats, but Hwang and three teammates -- Lee Yoo-yeon, Kim Ji-hun and Kim Min-joon -- shattered the four-year-old South Korean record by 2.24 seconds.
Hwang and a few other South Koreans trained in Australia for six weeks, from late April to early June, under the tutelage of Ian Pope, who has produced such Olympic gold medalists and world champions as Grant Hackett and Michael Klim.
Pope marveled at Hwang's efficient techniques and focused on improving the South Korean's underwater dolphin kicks. Hwang had been doing only three to four dolphin kicks, and Pope pushed him to raise that number to six, so Hwang could propel himself better off the wall. That extra couple of dolphin kicks could be the difference between a medal and an off-podium finish, because dolphin kicks push swimmers faster than surface strokes.
Hwang's dolphin kicks remain a work in progress, but it was enough to net him the coveted medal in Budapest.
Hwang's next individual event in Budapest will be the 100m freestyle, with heats scheduled for Tuesday, followed by the semifinals later Tuesday and the final on Wednesday.
Hwang's main event is clearly the 200m freestyle. Hwang only has the 32nd fastest-time in the 100m free this year at 48.42 seconds.
But his personal best time of 47.56, set last summer in Tokyo, would make him No. 1 this season. With the 200m freestyle medal already in the bag, Hwang may just let loose in the 100m without feeling as much pressure. It'd be foolish to bet against him in that case. (Yonhap)