Park’s Beijing Heroics Make Him Korea’s Next Transcendent Sports Star
By Jonathan Sanfilippo
Shortly after Park Tae-hwan finished swimming in the men's 200-meter freestyle final Tuesday at the Beijing Olympics, the young South Korean reached over to the lane next to him and shook hands with U.S. swimmer Michael Phelps.
Park didn't beat Phelps. The American star set a world record to capture his third gold medal of the Beijing Games.
But Park did swim well enough to earn the silver medal. He swam well enough to draw the attention of the thousands of spectators who filled China's National Aquatics Center, known as the Water Cube, along with millions of fans watching him on televisions in Korea. And he swam well enough to share a gesture of respect, a handshake, with perhaps the best swimmer on the planet.
``Just competing against Phelps was a good experience and an honor,'' said Park, who set an Asian record with a time of 1 minute, 44.85 seconds, while Phelps broke his own world record with a 1:42.96.
For Park, the race was an achievement that increased his status as an Olympic hero and celebrity in Korea. The 18-year-old had already given his country its first ever Olympic swimming medal by winning gold in the 400-meter freestyle on Sunday. That victory became such a source of national pride that South Korea President Lee Myung-bak made a phone call from Seoul to congratulate Park for his accomplishment.
``After getting the gold in the 400, I felt a bit more relaxed,'' Park said.
After adding a silver in the 200-meter freestyle on Tuesday, Park will be gunning for his third Olympic medal when he competes in his final event of the Beijing Games, the 1,500-meter freestyle, which will begin with heat races on Friday.
``I will do my best in the 1,500 meters,'' Park said. ``For that, I will take good care of myself.''
For Phelps, the 200-meter freestyle was the latest chapter in a pursuit of Olympic history. The 23-year-old tied a record by earning his ninth career gold medal ― six came in the 2004 Athens Games and three in Beijing. Soviet gymnast Larysa Latynina, American athletics star Carl Lewis, Finnish runner Paavo Nurmi and American swimmer Mark Spitz also won nine golds in their Olympic careers.
``The Olympics have been around for so many years. That's a pretty incredible accomplishment,'' Phelps said in an article by The Associated Press (AP).
With three golds already and five more events in Beijing, Phelps also remained on pace in his bid to capture a record eight gold medals in a single Summer Games. Spitz currently holds the mark for most golds in an Olympics after winning seven at the 1972 Munich Games.
``It might be once in a century you see something like this,'' another American swimmer, Aaron Peirsol, said in the AP story. ``He's not just winning, he's absolutely destroying everything. It's awesome to watch.''
Swimming in Lane 6, Phelps took an early lead in the 200-meter freestyle and maintained it the rest of the way for the victory.
Park, who swam in Lane 5, used a strong surge during the final 50 meters of the two-lap race to finish in second place, 0.29 seconds ahead of the bronze medallist, Peter Vanderkaay of the United States.
Korea Times correspondent Sunny Lee in Beijing contributed to this report.