After a long ordeal fighting for his chance to represent South Korea at the 2016 Olympic Games, 2008 Olympic gold medalist Park Tae Hwan failed to light fireworks in Rio. Leading up to the 2016 Olympic Games, Park had already served an 18-month ban for testing positive for banned testosterone back in 2014. He was then subject to an additional 3-year suspension by the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC), which was only lifted at the 11th hour following an appeal to the Court Arbitration of Sport.
Thus headed into Brazil, Park had anything but an ideal training plan built up behind him, and it showed. The man who claimed 2008 gold in the 400m freestyle and double silver in the 200m and 400m freestyle events in London was an absolute non-factor against the likes of China’s Sun Yang and Australia’s Mack Horton. Park wound up 32nd in the 100m freestyle (49.24), 29th in the 200m freestyle (1:48.06) and 10th in the 400m freestyle (3:45.63), making some wonder if the athlete’s aquatic career was on a downward slope.
But Park has since reconnected with an Australian coach who has helped rekindle the athlete’s passion and drive to continue pursuing aquatic excellence. Coach Tim Lane, formerly of Villanova and Notre Dame stateside and Perth in Australia, now heads Big Blue Swimming at Warringah Aquatic Center. He’s had newly-minted Aussie Short Course World Champion Bobby Hurley under his tutelage since February of this year, with Park having re-joined the Warringah squad full-time after Rio.
Being on the other side of the suspension scandal, paired with a new training environment is clearly working for the Korean since returning from Brazil. Park has been fueled with a refreshed intensity and desire to keep competing, as evidenced by his recent monster performances.
First at the Korean Sports Festival in October, Park threw down a mighty 1:45.01 in the 200m freestyle, a time which would have earned silver behind Sun Yang in Rio. Park also registered a time of 3:43.68 in the 400m freestyle, a mark which would have just missed the Rio podium, placing 4th among Olympic competitors.
A month later at the Asian Championships, Park stunned with a masterful sweep of the 100m/200m/400m/1500m freestyle races, further personifying what it means to have world-class range. His time in the 200 was another impressive 1:45.16, while Park notched a 100m free mark of 48.57, just off his own personal best. Both performances rendered championship records.
Not content to rest on his laurels, Park set out after conquering the FINA Short Course World Championships in Windsor, a decision which would put a cap on his memorable back half of 2016. A highlight of Park’s trifecta of freestyle wins included an upset in the 1500m event, where he out-performed defending World Champion and 2016 Olympic Champion Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy. Park raced to a new personal best time of 14:15.51, lowering the Asian, Korean and Championship records all in one swim. That eye-popping outing added to his earlier gold medal-winning swims in the 200m and 400m events in which he also lowered the Asian Records.
Of his athlete’s stellar streak, Lane attributes the success to both Park’s mindset, as well as what he puts down in the pool training session after training session.
In an exclusive interview with SwimSwam, Lane says “After Rio, Park came back to me very motivated and driven to improve upon his performances at the Olympics. We talked about targeting World SC Championships in Windsor, once we agreed it would be a meaningful competition for him, we set some goals, put together a plan and he executed it well.”
And how did the plan unfold? “[Park] had some good results LCM in Korea and Japan in October and November, also swam heats at Aussie SC Championships. The work he was completing in training was world-class. It’s been a long journey for him and he is also a very focused and resilient athlete. These factors all played a role in his success last week [at Short Course World Championships].”
As for the winning formula of training, Lane says there really isn’t a secret sauce other than hard work and Park’s natural swimming instincts.
“Technically speaking, Park is the best freestyler I’ve ever coached. His timing and application of force is very intuitive, and there is very little wasted energy in his stroke.”
“Although Park trains at the same time as my other squads, he is on his own training plan. However, I try to work him into the squads whenever possible. This includes some top end speed work alongside Bobby Hurley or race pace 50s next to some of my older guys wearing fins,” answers Lane when asked what Park’s interaction is with the other Warringah athletes.
Despite the optimism spawned from a two-month siege of records and wins, Lane says he and Park have still identified some areas for improvement, which Lane identifies as ‘exciting.’
“Although Park was pleased with his outcome in Windsor, he still wants to be faster, which says a lot about his current mindset.”
Short-term, Park is taking a break for Christmas and New Year’s, but plans to be back in action in the early New Year. Although nothing has been formally agreed upon, Lane and Park will most likely work together to prepare for the 2017 FINA World Championships in Budapest. With a disappointing showing in Rio, Budapest would essentially serve as Park’s true test at a full-fledged international long course competition after putting in a year’s worth of training without the suspension cloud hanging over his head.
As the World Champion told reporters upon returning from Windsor this week, “I have survived a roller coaster in my swimming life and my own life. I’ve learned about swimming as well as life, and I appreciate both.”