Olympic champion Park Tae-hwan won the 400-m freestyle at the 2011 FINA World Championships in Shanghai on Sunday to reassert his position as the world No. 1 at the distance and finally put to bad memories of his dismal performance at the Worlds two years ago in Rome, where he failed to advance to the final.
Park, who claimed gold in the event at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, raced home in a time of 3 minutes and 42.04 seconds at Shanghai's Oriental Sports Center to pocket the title. His performance kept him well ahead of China's Sun Yang and German world record holder Paul Biedermann, who finished 3:43.24 and 3:44.14, respectively.
Park's victory was by no means guaranteed, however, as he barely scraped through the preliminaries and into the final. His best time on Sunday morning of 3:46.72 had him as the seventh-fastest swimmer of the day, and was worse than the 3:46.04 he clocked in Rome in 2009. Fortunately, his rivals in the seventh and final heat of the preliminaries also put in slower times and he was able to advance.
Finishing seventh overall in the heats meant that Park was at a slight disadvantage in the final as it placed him in lane one for the first time in an international competition.
Of the 10 lanes used at Olympic-sized pools, the first and last are left empty to minimize the effect on swimmers of the ripples of water that are created at the sides of the pool. Meanwhile, the two outermost remaining lanes (Nos. 1 and 8) are considered the worst picks as they make it difficult for swimmers to watch their competitors.
"Honestly, I flinched after I was assigned to lane No. 1," Park said after the race. "I was worried because all seven swimmers in the final were superb athletes. As I was in this lane, it was difficult to keep an eye on them, so I decided to swim at my own pace."
He got off to a roaring start by posting the fastest reaction time of 0.67 and clocked 1:22.24 by the 150-m mark to eclipse the record set by Biedermann (1:22.43) at this stage during the latter's world-record setting performance in Rome. The German's world record of 3:40.07 still stands.
The situation got worse for Park halfway through the race, when he faltered and fell to second place as French star Yannick Agnel took the lead. By the 250-m mark he had dropped to fourth behind Tunisian Oussama Mellouli and Canada's Ryan Cochrane. However, Korea's so-called "Marine Boy" pulled off his signature final spurt of energy to climb back up the pack and reclaim the lead at 300 m, after which he continued to widen the gap to secure his victory.
"It's a bit disappointing that I couldn't break the world record," said Park, whose muted celebrations reflected his dissatisfaction with failing to usurp Biedermann as the fastest man ever at the distance. "But it was a good experience before next year's London Olympics. I hope I can beat the world record with more training."
Park's winning time was slower than his personal best of 3:41.53, which he set at last year's Asian Games in Guangzhou. But Sunday was hardly a day of personal bests. Sun Yang fell short of his best time of 3:41.48 despite emerging as the top swimmer in the preliminaries, while Biedermann came in more than four seconds behind his world record.