Park Tae-hwan says his eyes are set on 2020 Tokyo Games

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Park Tae-hwan says his eyes are set on 2020 Tokyo Games

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Korean swimmer Park Tae-hwan steps out of the swimming arena after being eliminated from the 200-meter freestyle event on Sunday in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. After he was also eliminated from 100-meter freestyle event on Tuesday, Park hinted that he might consider postponing his retirement to after the 2020 Tyoko Olympics. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Is this the end of the “Marine Boy” Park Tae-hwan? Some may say that the career of the 26-year-old swimmer has come to its inevitable end, given his recent performance in the Olympics where he was eliminated from three different events during the heats. But the swimmer begs to differ, hinting at his return for the next Olympics more prepared and determined.

“I don’t want to end it like this,” said Park after he was eliminated from the men’s 100-meter freestyle from the heats on Tuesday at the Olympic Aquatics Centre in Rio. This was the third time he was unable to advance past the heats. Previously, he was eliminated from the 400-meter freestyle, his main event, and the 200-meter freestyle. Now, with three events out of the picture, he only has one more to compete in, the 1,500-meter freestyle.

“I know it seems a little far off,” he said, referring to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, “but I feel it will come around quickly.”

Park added, “Once I know for sure that I want to compete in Tokyo, I will prepare for the Olympics with everything I have, unlike this one.”

Such a remark by the two-time Olympic medalist indicates not only his disappointment about this year’s Games, and the lack of training he was able to put in beforehand, but also suggests the possibility that he is considering postponing his retirement, which many thought would begin after the Rio Games.

The lead-up to the Olympics has been a roller coaster for Park. Serving an 18-month suspension by the International Swimming Federation (FINA) for doping, Park became eligible to compete in international meets and practice in pools sanctioned by the body this March. Up until then, Park had been unable to obtain any proper training. It was not until June that Park finally participated in his first international meet in two years, during which Park finished third in his main event.

Even after his ban by FINA was lifted, Park had to fight for his spot in the Olympic squad, because a rule set by Korean Olympic Committee (KOC) barred him from being in the national team until March 2019. He struggled through a legal battle that even involved the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), a quasi-judicial body established to settle disputes related to sports through arbitration. By the time he got his spot on the national team, Park was already worn out from the process and missed the chance to undergo proper preparation for the Games.

“Japan is closer to Korea [than Brazil] so I think the overall condition for me would be better,” Park went on. “It is a setting in which the Korean delegation could do well.”

Being eliminated from the three events during the heats is the worst performance Park has given since the 2009 World Championships, when he finished 12th in the 400-meter race, 13th in the 200-meter race and 9th in the 1,500-meter race. After the Championships, he has won at least one medal in every single major meet he participated in, including the 2011 World Championships, when he claimed gold in the 400-meter event, and the 2012 London Olympics, when he claimed two silvers.

Obviously, being eliminated early on was not the scenario Park had in mind when he arrived in Rio couple of weeks ago. For this reason, the phrases that came out of Park’s mouth the most during this year’s Summer Games were “I am sorry,” and “it is disappointing.”

Park remarked, “It was frustrating saying these things. I really hope I don’t say these things anymore. Training hard and finishing races with good results, this is what I need to do as a professional swimmer.”

Many experts predicted before the Olympics that it would be difficult for the swimmer to medal at this year’s Games. Not only did he lack the proper training, but at the age of 26, Park is considered well past his prime. But now, it seems while Park agrees that his training was insufficient, he disagrees that he is too seasoned. Veteran swimmers like Michael Phelps, a 31-year-old American swimmer who already won three golds this year after coming out of retirement, seems to give Park hope that age is not an excuse when it comes to swimming.

“Phelps is a special case, physically speaking,” said a former professional swimmer who competed for Korea as a reserve. “But with proper training and help by experts, a swimmer [like Park] could overcome his age.”

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