He looked small compared to his seven other competitors on the final. But he remained unshaken, standing in front on lane 6, sprinkling water on himself for warmup, and patting his chest and ribs for a deep breath. And it was the man on lane 6 who jumped into the water the fastest upon the whistle signal.
Hwang Seon-woo, an 18-year-old swimming prodigy from South Korea, finished fifth in the men's 100-meter freestyle final at Tokyo Aquatics Center, clocking 47.82 seconds. Having made it to the finals of this discipline for the first time in 65 years as an Asian swimmer, Hwang accomplished the best performance for Asia in 69 years since Hiroshi Suzuki of Japan won silver at the Helsinki 1952 Olympics.
It was a fight between a David and Goliaths. Roughly 186cm tall, Hwang isn’t exactly small for an adult man, but his contenders next to him – Caeleb Dressel of the United States, who is 191cm tall, and the 2016 gold medalist Kyle Chalmers of Australia, who is 193cm tall – simply towered over the Asian challenger. Both sprint swimmers, the two men boasted a muscular build. Among the total eight swimmers, Hwang and his Romanian competitors were the only teenagers.
But the South Korean stood tall. He made the quickest response for start at 0.58 seconds. While the start was fast enough, he lacked stamina for his 15-meter underwater swimming. At 50 meter, Dressel came in first (22.39 seconds) and Hwang in sixth (23.12 seconds). After making his final 50-meter spurt, Hwang finished the race fifth. It was Dressel who won the gold medal with a new Olympic record (47.02 seconds).
While Hwang was watching his contenders stepping on the podium for medals, there was no sign of regret found on his face. Indeed, the South Korean had every right to be proud of himself just by making it to the finals of the men’s 200-meter and 100-meter freestyle, an arena long dominated by Western swimmers. The experience of breaking records as Korean, Asian, and World junior has also helped boost his confidence. “I feel so liberated as I’ve finished my main events (200m & 100m). It was an honor rubbing shoulders with great swimmers,” Hwang said after the final round.
Bae-Jung Kim firstname.lastname@example.org