Park Tae Hwan Wins 22th Dong-A Swimming Competition

John Kim, April 25, 2016, 7:47 a.m.

Former Olympic swimming champion Park Tae-hwan won a race in his first competition in nearly 18 months on Monday. Park captured the men's 1,500m freestyle race at the 88th Dong-A Swimming Competition in Gwangju, some 330 kilometers south of Seoul. He clocked 15 minutes and 10.95 seconds. He was nearly 15 seconds faster than the runner-up, Park Seok-hyun.

It was Park's first competitive appearance since the National Sports Festival in November 2014. Park served an 18-month international doping suspension that began retroactively in September 2014 and ended in March this year. He had earlier tested positive for testosterone. Monday's time was well short of Park's personal best of 14:47.38, set in February 2012 in Australia, and it ranked 29th in the world this season.

The Dong-A meet doubles as the second round of the national team trials for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Summer Olympics. Park was well inside the "A" Olympic qualifying standards of 15:14.77 set by FINA, the world swimming governing body, but he has already been ruled ineligible for Rio by the Korean Olympic Committee (KOC). Under a KOC rule guiding the national team selection process, athletes who have served doping suspensions aren't allowed to represent the country for three years, starting on the day their bans end.

The KOC, despite facing criticism of double punishment, has stated it wouldn't create exceptions for particular athletes. Park won the 2008 Olympic gold medal in the 400m freestyle, and added silver in the 200m freestyle at the same Olympics. In 2012, he won silver medals in both the 200m and 400m freestyle races. Park remains the only South Korean, male or female, with an Olympic swimming medal, and he has also collected two world championships in the 400m free.

The KOC could come under even more heat after this competition if Park cracks FINA's Olympic qualification marks in his upcoming races. Park will enter the 200m freestyle on Tuesday, followed by 400m freestyle on Wednesday and 100m freestyle on Thursday. Though Park's 1,500m time Monday was only 29th in the world this season, he had a better finish to the race than the world No. 1 of the season, Mack Horton of Australia.

Park's final 50m split was 26.93 seconds, while Horton, who finished in 14:39.54 at the Australian Championships on April 7, had a split of 28.37 over the final stretch. Horton also has the best 400m freestyle time of the year at 3:41.62, and Park's split on Monday was actually faster than Horton's final 50m time of 27.36 in the 400m race.

Park's coach, Roh Min-sang, said he was quite pleased with the swimmer's performance, especially since the 1,500m isn't his main event. Park was merely trying to finish under the FINA Olympic qualifying time in the long distance event, Roh added. "He could have been out of sync because this was his first competitive race in a long time," the coach said. "But he maintained his pace very well. He is absolutely the best in the final spurt. I'd like to give him kudos."

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