Park Makes History
Park Tae-hwan had a smile on his face Sunday morning as he climbed out of the swimming pool at the Beijing Olympics. He then walked toward the stands, where he was handed two small South Korean flags, which he waived in front of thousands of cheering spectators who filled China's National Aquatics Center, known as the Water Cube.
Park ― and South Koreans everywhere ― had plenty to celebrate. Moments earlier, the 18-year-old won gold in the men's 400-meter freestyle, giving his country its first swimming medal in the history of the Olympics.
Before Park's triumph, South Korea, which has sent swimmers to the Olympics since the 1964 Games in Tokyo, had never finished better than seventh in any swimming event.
On Sunday, the nation had an Olympic champion.
``I hope my gold medal will pave the road for Asians and South Koreans to be competitive in swimming, a sport in which swimmers from Europe, Australia and the United States dominate,'' said Park, who was born in Seoul but trains in Australia.
Park finished his gold-winning race in a time of 3 minutes, 41.86 seconds, while China's Zhang Lin (3:42.44) captured the silver medal and American Larsen Jensen (3:42.78) took the bronze. Australia's Grant Hackett, who entered the day with the fastest career time of anyone in the field, finished sixth in 3:43.84.
``I just did my best in the race,'' Park said. ``I am satisfied with my time, and it is honorable to compete with top-tier rivals.''
Surrounded by high expectations from South Korean sports fans and media, Park looked tense as he walked toward his starting position in Lane 3 wearing a red warm-up jacket and headphones.
When the race began, he swam slightly behind the leaders on the first of its four laps, but pulled even by the halfway point.
Park took the lead on the third lap and held it the remainder of the race, before touching the wall and throwing his fists in the air to celebrate the win.
``I didn't have any specific strategy,'' said Park, who began swimming when he was 7 to cope with asthma. ``I thought at first I shouldn't lag behind the other swimmers too much, so I could keep pace with the others.
``It is a good result, and thanks to the support of our people, I have tried my best.''
Park's gold medal is the highlight of his young career, which is already filled with accomplishments. After false starting in the 400-meter freestyle in his only other Olympic appearance at the 2004 Athens Games, he bounced back to win the 400-meter and 1,500-meter freestyle at the 2006 Pan Pacific Games and the 400-meter freestyle at the 2007 World Championships.
Park is now looking to add to his medal collection at the Olympics. He was scheduled to compete in a 200-meter freestyle preliminary race Sunday night and will swim in a 1,500-meter freestyle preliminary race Friday.
``I will work hard in the 200- and 1,500-meter freestyles to live up to expectations,'' he said.