Thanks to Jinho Lee for contributing to this report:
South Korea will begin its national championships and trials for the World Champs this week in Ulsan, and though the nation will be without its biggest star, some intriguing young names now get a chance to take center stage.
The nation’s first Olympic swimming champion Park Tae-hwan won’t be competing; he was suspended for 18 months after failing a drug test last September. But his absence could turn out to have a silver lining for Korea, a nation with some bright young talents who will now get the chance to take a more central role in the swimming spotlight.
The meet begins Thursday and runs through next Monday (April 16-20). Here are four swimmers to watch this week:
1. Easop Lee: Lee, 15, is well-known to American audiences, given she trains and competes with the well-known North Baltimore Aquatic Club in the United States most of the year. Lee will swim the 200 free, 400 free, 200 fly and 400 IM at Korean Trials.
The then-14-year-old Lee went under the Korean national record in the 400 free at last year’s U.S. Junior Nationals with a 4:12.65, but because she wasn’t officially registered with the Korean Swimming Federation, the time didn’t count as the national record. Lee will break the record this year if she can go faster than 4:13.20. Regardless, she’ll have a great shot to represent the country internationally this summer while she’s still just a teenager.
2. Yang Jungdoo: Yang, a fast-twitch sprint specialist, is the national record-holder in both the 50 free (22.48) and 50 fly (23.71), and he’ll compete in both events at Korean Trials. Yang is no stranger to international success, having earned bronze in the 50 fly at last summer’s Asian Games.
3. Choi Kyu-woong: Choi is the only Korean swimmer besides Park to ever qualify for finals of a World Championship meet, doing so in 2011. He’s the national record-holder in both breaststrokes (1:01.00 and 2:11.17) and will contest both this week. Choi recently joined Korea’s Armed Forces Athletic Corps, and this meet will be the first major test of how he’s responding to a new training environment.
4. Cho Hyoun-joo: Cho is the current Korean record-holder in the 400 free, and will look to defend her mark from the fast-rising Lee. Cho also holds the 800 free mark at 8:42.31. That 400 free might be the race of the meet – Cho is the same age as Lee (both were born in 2000), and both are incredibly fast risers. A converted sprinter, Cho has only been swimming distance for about a year, but broke both national distance records last season while she was still only learning the ropes of the distance mindset.