One devastating late sprint was all it took for Kosuke Hagino to alter the established order of Asian swimming on Sunday. The 20-year-old Japanese student steamed past his two big rivals — China’s Sun Yang and Park Tae-hwan of South Korea — to win the 200 metres freestyle gold medal at the Asian Games.
Sun and Park had their excuses but all the signs are there that Hagino is going to win plenty more medals, not only at these Asian Games but also the 2016 Rio Olympics.
He had already established himself as the rising star of Asian swimming when he beat Michael Phelps in a real dogfight at last month’s Pan Pacific championships in Australia. Sunday’s victory just reinforced that notion, even if he did spoil the most anticipated showdown of the 17th Asian Games.
Hagino has entered six events in Incheon and could end up winning medals in all of them but the 200m freestyle is not his strongest event – the individual medleys are.
The 200m was meant to be a match race between Sun and Park, both pioneers of Asian men’s swimming who have chalked up a stack of world, Olympic and Asian titles between them. They are also fierce rivals, but swimming is an unforgiving sport where time waits for no one and neither man could hold off the fresh-faced Hagino, who reeled off his final lap in 26 seconds flat to win the gold in one minute 45.23 seconds.
Hagino was gracious in victory, saying that if is big-name rivals had swum their best they probably would have beaten him. “They are both great swimmers. Just being able to compete with them meant a lot to me,” said Hagino, echoing similar comments he made after beating Phelps. “I will now focus on the 400m freestyle. I cannot say I have gained a lot of confidence by winning today but I will continue this momentum for the remaining games.”
Sun was in a glum mood after his loss, saying he hurt his thumb when he slammed into the wall at the end. Better over longer distances, Sun led when the field turned for home but couldn’t muster the same devastating finishing speed as Hagino. “I got caught up in the last 50m. I injured my thumb when I touched the touchpad,” Sun said. “I am satisfied with today’s result. I did my best. I am satisfied with this silver medal.”
For Park, the loss was bittersweet. He won three gold medals at each of the last two Asian Games and has been struggling to live up the heavy expectations on him in his homeland. “It is an Asian Game taking place in my country and it is in a stadium named after me…so it was a burden on my shoulder,” he said. “I wanted to overcome that burden but my body didn’t allow me to…and I feel bad about that.”
Minutes after he was presented with his gold medal, Hagino stripped off his tracksuit and jumped back in the pool for the 100m backstroke final. He could only manage third behind his team mate Ryosuke Irie, who won in a time of 52.34, just ahead of China’s Xu Jiayu.
Japan completed a sweep of the three men’s swimming finals on the first night of swimming when Daiya Seto won the 200m butterfly in 1:54.008, ahead of his countryman Kenta Hirai and Singapore teenager Joseph Schooling.
Japan are building a powerful men’s team but Asian women’s swimming remains the domain of China, who won all three golds on Sunday.
Zhang Yuhan won the 400m freestyle in 4:07.67 ahead of her team mate Bi Yirong and Japan’s Chihiro Igarashi. Shi Jinglin won the 100m breaststroke in 1:06.67, from Japan’s Kanako Watanabe and He Yun, of China.
China also won the women’s 4x100m freestyle relay, giving London Olympic medley champion Yi Shiwen another gold medal for her collection. Teenager Shen Duo, another star in the making, was also on the winning team. Japan took the silver medal and Hong Kong the bronze.