Swimming sensation Hwang Sun-woo credits adrenaline rush for world title

December 21, 2022

Fresh off his second straight world short course title, South Korean swimming sensation Hwang Sun-woo said Tuesday he was glad to have battled through an injury that almost kept him out of the pool in the final.

Hwang returned home Tuesday, two days after defending the men’s 200-meter freestyle gold medal at the FINA Short Course World Swimming Championships in Melbourne. The 19-year-old set an Asian record and the competition record with a time of 1:39.72.

Hwang held off David Popovici of Romania, the reigning world long course champion, by 1.07 seconds. Tom Dean of Britain, the 2021 Olympic gold medalist, finished another 0.07 second back in third place.

The short course competition is held over a 25m pool, instead of the Olympic-standard 50m pool.

Hwang almost didn’t make it to the final in Melbourne. He sprained his right index middle fingers while touching the pad during the heats and was the last qualifier with the eighth-fastest time at 1:42.44, just 0.10 second ahead of American Kieran Smith.

“I still felt a lot of pain about two hours before the final, and I thought about withdrawing,” Hwang told reporters at Incheon International Airport, just west of Seoul. “But I decided it was going to be a unique opportunity to race in the final as the last qualifier. I knew it was not an ideal situation, but I am glad I ended up competing.”

Hwang swam in Lane 8 at the far end of the pool, also not an ideal spot for medal hopefuls because he only had one swimmer by his side to push him, instead of being flanked by two. That one swimmer in Lane 7 happened to be Popovici, the Romanian sensation who beat Hwang for the long course 200m world title in Hungary in June.

“I think I had an adrenaline rush there,” Hwang said. “Obviously, Popovici has been great in the long course and I had to keep an eye on him. But at the same time, I tried to focus on my own swim and see what happens.”

Popovici is one year younger than Hwang, while Dean is just 22 himself. Hwang said he is looking forward to forging rivalries with them for years to come.

“We’re all around the same age, and I think I will be battling those two in the 200m for the rest of my career,” Hwang said. “Hopefully, I will be able to feed off our competition and keep improving.”

While the Olympic Games are held in the 50m pool, Hwang said it was an important confidence builder for him to edge out Popovici in the shorter pool.

“I think 1:39 in the short course could translate to a really good time in the long course,” said Hwang, who holds the long course national record in the 200m freestyle at 1:44.47. “My goal is to get to 1:43 or even 1:42 in the long course.”

Hwang first turned heads at the Tokyo Olympics last year and then announced his arrival with the long course world silver in June this year. Winning the second straight short course title was the perfect way to cap off a productive year.

“I’d like to pat myself on the back for this successful season. I was able to win medals at both world championships and broke my personal best times, too,” Hwang said. “I will try to build on this experience and keep improving my record next year and beyond.”

Two days before winning the 200m gold, Hwang helped South Korea shatter the national record in the 4x200m freestyle relay, with a time of 6:49.67.

The previous mark had been 7:19.69, and Hwang and three teammates, Kim Woo-min, Lee Ho-joon and Yang Jae-hoon, first broke it in the heats with 6:55.24 on Friday morning, before improving on their own mark just hours later.

They finished 0.04 second behind Italy for the bronze medal, but the fourth place finish was still the best showing by South Korea in any relay event at a short course or a long course world championship.

“Our goal is no longer just to make it to the final. I think we are good enough to challenge for a medal,” Hwang said. “We have incredible chemistry. I am looking forward to winning some medals with my teammates.”