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Swimmer Lee Ho-joon enjoys flying under radar

Sept. 22, 2023 - 10:14 By Yonhap
South Korean swimmer Lee Ho-joon speaks to reporters at Hangzhou Xioashan International Airport in Hangzhou, China, on Thursday after arriving in the host city of the 19th Asian Games. (Yonhap)

South Korean swimmer Lee Ho-joon has spent the past few years in the shadow of his more famous relay teammate, Hwang Sun-woo.

When the two aren't teaming up for the men's 4x200-meter freestyle relay, Lee and Hwang engage in an internal competition in the men's 200m freestyle.

Hwang is the more accomplished athlete of the two, having won silver and then bronze in the 200m freestyle at the past two World Aquatics Championships. Lee, though, took a big step forward at this year's world championships in July, reaching the 200m freestyle final for the first time and finishing in sixth place.

Hwang and Lee were the only Asian finalists at the world championships, but Lee is still somehow flying under the radar ahead of the Asian Games in Hangzhou, China. That's because the spotlight has mostly been on the budding rivalry between Hwang and Chinese teen sensation Pan Zhanle.

But that suits Lee just fine.

"I think this situation allows me to compete under less pressure," Lee said after arriving at Hangzhou Xiaoshan International Airport on Thursday afternoon. "That's just how I look at it. I am not too concerned about it otherwise. Pan Zhanle's best time in the 200m is faster than mine, anyway."

At the worlds, Lee finished sixth in the final in 1:46.04. Pan missed the final by finishing tied for 10th in the semifinals with a time of 1:46.05. But Pan's personal best in the 200m freestyle is 1:44.65, compared to Lee's 1:45.70.

At the previous Asian Games five years ago, Lee, then still a teenager, finished seventh in 1:48.10. Now 22, Lee said he has grown by leaps and bounds over the past handful of years.

"My time has improved so much and I think I've also matured mentally," Lee said. "Based on my times in training, I should be able to contend for a medal here. The competition is a different animal than training, but if I can race the way I've been training, I think a medal will naturally follow."

Even if Lee doesn't win a medal in the 200m freestyle, he will have just as strong of an opportunity to grab one in the 4x200m freestyle relay.

Lee and Hwang, along with Kim Woo-min and Yang Jae-hoon, broke their own national record twice while finishing in sixth place at the world championships this summer. They posted a time of 7:04.07 even with Hwang competing while under the weather.

Hwang has voiced confidence that his team can break the national record again in Hangzhou. Lee took it a step further Thursday.

"We're also thinking about setting the new Asian record," Lee said. Japan holds the continental mark with 7:02.26, set at the 2009 world championships. "We've been building up for that. We just want to race the way we're capable of." (Yonhap)