Park heads to Florida to finish training for upcoming Rio Olympics

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Park heads to Florida to finish training for upcoming Rio Olympics

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Park Tae-hwan smiles during a press conference Sunday at Incheon International Airport before departing for the United States. [NEWSIS]

After months of uncertainty, Korean swimmer Park Tae-hwan headed to Orlando, Florida, on Sunday to begin his final preparations for the upcoming Summer Olympics.

“Unlike four years ago, it was a tough journey getting to the Olympics this year,” Park said during a press conference at Incheon International Airport before his flight.

“There were some bumps here and there but now that I get to go, I want… to finish with a good record. Ideally, I’d like to come home with something around my neck.”

It was unclear until earlier this month whether Park, who had been suspended for doping, would be able to participate in the Olympics at all.

The good news for the swimmer came on July 7, when the Court of Arbitration for Sports (CAS) ruled he should be allowed to compete in Rio de Janeiro.

The Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) followed the top sports tribunal’s recommendation and placed Park on the preliminary roster for the Summer Games that was submitted to the International Swimming Federation (FINA) that same day. The preliminary roster is expected to mirror the final roster for the Games.

Park, who was suspended by FINA after he tested positive for taking Nebido, a relatively new anabolic steroid, served an 18-month ban by the world swimming body until March this year. But a subsequent three-year ban by the KOC wasn’t to expire until March 2019, which forced Park to appeal to the CAS to settle the case.

He was the only Korean swimmer to meet the “A” standards for Olympics qualification set by FINA during the Donga swimming championship in April, which doubled as an Olympics qualifier.

His time in his main event, the 400-meter freestyle, was 3 minutes and 44.26 seconds, ranking him sixth worldwide in the category this year.

Park will train in Orlando, Florida, until July 31, when he will travel to Rio. His first Olympic meet is slated for August 6.

“I chose the United States because it is close to Brazil, making it easy to get adjusted to the time difference,” Park said at the press conference.

“I want a medal, but that desire can only create unnecessary stress,” he added. “I need to let go a little bit and focus on the race. What I can do best is swim, so I have been doing just that despite everything that has been happening. I hope to now be able to reciprocate the support I’ve been given by fans.”

Still, some are skeptical about Park’s chances in Rio.

Many argue that the swimmer, 26, is well past his prime, and those close to him - including a former coach - say he’s mentally drained from the doping scandal and subsequent legal battle.

Further, unlike the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and the London Olympics in 2012, Park doesn’t have a main sponsor to organize his training this time around. Instead, he has been forced to set up his own team and handle crucial details like his diet alone.

There are also concerns about his physical condition.

An examination last year showed that his lung capacity, which was considered one of the main reasons behind his outstanding past performances, had shrunk. He has also lost quite a bit of muscle on his arms and legs, which are smaller by as much as one centimeter (0.4 inch) compared to earlier Olympics.

All these concerns seemed evident at Park’s most recent competition, the Swimming Australia Grand Prix in Brisbane at the end of June.

At his first international meet since the FINA ban was lifted, Park clocked 3 minutes and 49.18 seconds in the 400-meter freestyle to finish third. The time was well below the top 40 this season.

At the Olympics, Park will be participating in four different freestyle events - the 100-meter, 200-meter, 400-meter and 1500-meter - for which he qualified at the Donga event in April.

His performance at the Olympics will be dictated by how he spends the remaining time before the races.

With only 20 days left, many experts say he should focus on rest, spending his remaining time on a so-called tapering period.

The practice involves reducing the amount of exercise before an important competition, and is common in endurance sports such as swimming and running.

BY CHOI HYUNG-JO [choi.hyungjo@joongang.co.kr]

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