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Day 1 Finals, Oriental Sports Center, Shanghai
Men's 400m freestyle
Park Tae-hwan (KOR) and Sun Yang (CHN) gave Asia its first 1-2 ever in the history of men's racing at the world championships in a 400m freestyle that saw defending champion Paul Biedermann celebrate bronze for Germany with a bravura performance that set to rest his role in the suits controversy of Rome 2009.
Australian coach Michael Bohl had a word in the ear of his Korean charge, Olympic champion Park Tae-hwan, before the start battle: out in lane 1, on the edge, stick to your own pace, your own race, don't worry what others are doing. Tae-hwan, based in Brisbane, followed the plan to the stroke, taking the lead from go, turning first at 50m, on 25.72, at 100m, on 53.73, and 150m, on 1:22.24, all the while inside the world record pace set by Paul Biedermann (GER) in Rome two years ago.
The German, coached by Frank Embacher in Halle, turned last at the 50m, his eye on the man next door, Sun Yang (CHN) in lane 4, and then spent much of the rest of the race back in 7th, slow burning, never out of contention. By 200m, the race took on a new dimension as Yannick Agnel (FRA) got his foot to the wall ahead for the first time, 1:50.96 0.08sec up on Park with the rest close by, the one man struggling in the 400m heat Sebastian Rouault (FRA), whose efforts today, like those of Ryan Cochrane (CAN) surely augur well for the bigger distances ahead as the week progresses.
Just a lap later, Agnel retained the lead, Olympic 1500m freestyle champion Oussama Mellouli (TUN) made his move, and Cochrane found himself third. Park came off the wall on the way to the 300m mark like a man possessed. His stroke hardly faltering, long, smooth, one-way motion, his pace intense, his kick regulated like a fountain in a fine piazza. By the turn into the last 100m, Park had put some blue space between him and the field, his 2:47.79 now off world-record pace (the buoy of suits most significant when fatigue kicks in) and 0.98sec ahead of Chinese favourite Sun Yang, in fifth as he had been since the 150m mark. Mellouli was next through, on 2:48.46, with Agnel, Cochrane, Sun and Peter Vanderkaay (USA) all within 0.44sec of each other. Biedermann, seventh in 2:49.11, would bide his time no more.
Down the next length, the defending champion made his move knowing that the wash from the feet out in lane 1 belonged to Park but believing that anything but keeping his crown was possible. At the last turn Park had built an unassailable lead, on 3:15.61 more than a second up on the boiling battle for the minor spoils. Biedermann, no suit to lean on this time round, proved himself a world-class act with a 27.75 split, best in the race, to the last wall to find himself level second with Sun, coached by Dennis Cotterell on the Gold Coast in Australia, on 3:16.86. But for the Asian rivals having a touch more fuel left on the way home than Biedermann on their way to repeating their 1-2 finish from the Asian Games last year, the podium was a done deal.
Park's homecoming split of 26.43 kept Sun's 26.38 at bay for a 3:42.04 to 3:43.24 conclusion, with Biedermann boasting the next-best last 50m, a 27.28 delivering a lifetime best in a textile suit of 3:44.14. Close by were Vanderkaay, on 3`:44.83, with Cochrane on 3:45.17, Agnel on 3:45.24 and Mellouli on 3:45.31. Rouault came home in 3:47.66 at the trail end of a showcase final stacked with the rush of close racing that makes swimming so thrilling.
Park's performance took him back to the successes of 2008 when he claimed the Olympic crown and confined to history the doldrums of Rome 2009, when he was washed out by a sea of suits at a time when he was struggling to find motivation. The wobble of morning heats that placed him in lane 1 proved no barrier for the Korean national hero. "I (was) glad to swim in lane one, which allowed me to fully concentrate on my own tempo and not to get distracted from the competition," Park said.
For Biedermann, a return to the podium was reason to be cheerful, as was the time on the clock. "I'm really pleased with this time," he said. "It's the best I could do at the moment. I felt pretty bad during the race. ... I saw Park and I thought, 'Well this guy is away, don't look at him anymore, look at silver or bronze'."
Asked about suits, he smiled broadly and said: "I feel good in my new suit. Maybe the suit helped me a little bit more than the other guys but I'm third in the world." Not a bad place to be at all, particularly the pace he mustered.
The splits compared:
History in the making:
From the archive:
Ian Thorpe is back, has cited the 100m and 200m freestyle but while the 400m is not entirely ruled out the Australian has indicated that eight laps if four too far in the time he has to prepare for London 2012, after he is allowed to race again from November this year. None of which can take away the pedigree of the past: at 14 he was second in the 400m at the 1997 Pan Pacific Championships - and would never know defeat in a long-course 400m again; in Perth at 15 years, 3 months in 1998, he became the youngest male world champion.