Park (KOR) is back, Pellegrini (ITA) remains strong
After winning the men’s 400m free at the 2007 FINA World Championships in Melbourne (AUS) and reinforcing his status of Korean star at the Beijing 2008 Olympic Games (gold in the men’s 400m free and a silver in the 200m), Tae Hwan Park did not appear in great shape at the 2009 Worlds in Rome (ITA), finishing only 12th in the longest distance. In 2010, Park seemed to have recovered, with victories in the 100m, 200m and 400m of the Asian Games. In Shanghai, he confirmed that he is back to the top, winning the first swimming final of the programme at the 14th FINA World Championships Shanghai 2011, precisely the 400m free, in a time of 3:42.04. It was the third fastest 400m victory in the history of the FINA World Championships, after the 3:40.17 triumph of Ian Thorpe (AUS, 2001) and the 2009 win of Paul Biedermann (GER, 3:40.07, the current World Record). At 21, Park demonstrates that he is ready for the 2012 Olympic celebration in London (GBR).
“In the beginning, I felt I was not performing well enough. Since I was in lane number 1, it had pros and cons. Tonight I won the gold but in London, if Ian Thorpe comes back, I will also make my best efforts to win,” said Park.
He advanced China’s Yang Sun (third in 2009 in the 1500m), who touched home in 3:43.24 for the silver medal (Sun’s best this year, a 3:41.48 effort at China’s Nationals in April, would have sufficed for the gold), while Biedermann was third in 3:44.14. Park, in lane 1, controlled very well the pace of the race, touching always first with the exception of the 200m and 250m mark. The (negative) surprise came from the side of Oussama Mellouli (TUN), second in Rome two years ago, and only seventh in Shanghai, in 3:45.31. The 2010 European champion Yannick Agnel (FRA) was a bit faster than Mellouli, concluding in sixth (3:45.24).
Tae Hwan Park (KOR) - credit: Giorgio Scala
Despite the silver, Yang Sun was not thrilled: “My performance tonight was not as good as expected. Maybe this was due to the fact that I was competing with a lot of World champions, so I ‘started’ late. In the first half of my swim, they were faster than me and we were all striving to pass each other. This is a world-class competition. I cannot afford to make any mistake. Although I lost to the champion, I did learn a lot from it too.”
Among women, the 400m duel between 2008 Olympic champion Rebecca Adlington (GBR) and 2009 gold medallist Federica Pellegrini (ITA) was won by the Italian in a time of 4:01.97. Despite having the best performance of the season before Shanghai (4:02.84), Adlington got the silver in 4:04.01. It’s the “most valuable medal” so far for the British champion, after a 2009 bronze in the 400m and in the 4x200m relay. Pellegrini obtained her fifth award in this competition, after a silver (2005) and a bronze (2007) in the 200m, and two gold at home in 2009 (200m and 400m). Fastest of the heats, the “Diva” performed a serene race and never felt in danger by her most direct challengers. Besides Laure Manaudou (FRA, 2005 and 2007), Pellegrini is the only athlete in the history of the championships to revalidate the title in this distance.
"The last two years were difficult for me because of the loss of my coach [Alberto Castagnetti], but I still managed to win this gold and this gives me confidence," confessed Pellegrini, also a gold medal favourite in the 200m free.
The bronze went to Camille Muffat (FRA) in 4:04.06, a bit slower than her best effort in 2011, a 4:03.23 finish in Paris (FRA), in the end of June. Muffat had won the gold in the 200m of the 10th FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) held last December in Dubai (UAE). The 2008 Olympic silver medallist in Beijing, Katie Hoff (USA) concluded in a disappointing seventh position (4:08.22).
The last two finals of the day, the women’s and men’s 4x100m free relays were won by the Netherlands and Australia, respectively. For the Dutch (with a team formed by Inge Dekker, Ranomi Kromowidjojo, Marleen Veldhuis, Femke Hemskerk), the triumph in 3:33.96 repeated the 2009 success in Rome, where the same quartet got the gold in 3:31.72. Things started, however, shaky for the winners, when Inge Dekker completed the first 100m in the seventh position. Still second to USA at the 300m mark, Heemskerk made the difference in the last leg (52.46), against US Vollmer’s 53.27. Fourth in the Eternal City, the USA regained its podium status, with a silver in Shanghai (3:34.47); Germany, second two years ago, downgraded to third, in a time of 3:36.05. Australia, winner in 2005 and 2007, was this time fifth, behind the team of China (at the podium’s “door” – fourth in 3:36.36).
"We were going into this event as the defending champions so it was very exciting from this standpoint to start the race. We knew in advance that it would be a close race with the Americans. They led the pack from the beginning and when I jumped into the water, I just tried to maintain the gap and I actually decreased it so I was very happy with my race," explain Marleen Velhuis. Her teammate Femke Heemskerk completed: "I am very proud of our team. Last year were struggling a bit, as Marleen had a baby. Now she's back, we win the final so it's a very special moment for us."
Among men, the Australians (James Magnussen, Matthew Targett, Matthew Abood, Eamon Sullivan) always led the operations, and touched home in 3:11.00. The last world championship victory for Australia in this event was in 2001, before the advent of Russia (2003) and USA (2005, 2007 and 2009). France, third in 2003, 2007 and 2009, finished second in 3:11.14, while the United States, 11 times winner of this event in the history of the FINA World Championships, got the bronze in 3:11.96. The North Americans only lost this race in 2001 and 2003, and despite the first leg swam by Michael Phelps in 48.08 (second best to Australia’s Magnussen 47.49) they were also defeated in Shanghai.