SEOUL, Jul. 10 (Korea Bizwire) — The wait is almost over, as the southern city of Gwangju is preparing to host the first swimming world championships in South Korea starting this week.
The 2019 FINA World Aquatics Championships will begin Friday, with an opening ceremony scheduled for 8:20 p.m. Gwangju, 330 kilometers south of Seoul, is the third Asian host of the event, after Fukuoka of Japan in 2001 and China’s Shanghai in 2011.
Under the slogan “Dive into Peace,” the competition in Gwangju will serve as a prelude to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, with several Olympic berths at stake.
This year’s competition will be the largest ever, with 2,639 athletes from 194 countries having signed up by the July 3 deadline.
The previous event in Budapest two years ago had 2,303 athletes from 177 countries. In 2015 in Kazan, Russia, 2,413 athletes from 184 countries competed.
Through July 28, these athletes will be vying for 76 gold medals in swimming, diving, water polo, artistic swimming, open water swimming and high diving.
With 82 athletes, host South Korea will have its largest world championships team. There will be 29 in swimming, 26 in water polo, 11 in artistic swimming, eight in diving and eight in open water swimming.
South Korea will be without the greatest swimmer in its history, as Park Tae-hwan, the only Olympic gold medalist and world champion from the country, will be sitting out the competition.
The country’s best medal hope rests on the shoulders of Kim Seo-yeong.
She had a career year in 2018, winning the gold medal in the women’s 200-meter individual medley (IM) and the silver in the 400m IM at the Asian Games.
In the 200m IM, Kim’s winning time of 2:08.34 was both the South Korean national record and the Asian Games competition record.
The 25-year-old has said her goal in Gwangju is to break her own national record. So far in 2019, Katinka Hosszu of Hungary owns the best women’s 200m IM time with 2:08.28.
The Hungarian veteran has seven of the 10 fastest times in the 200m IM this year, including the top three. She will go for her fourth consecutive world title in that event in Gwangju.
Elsewhere for South Korea, diver Woo Ha-ram will enter all individual events. In Rio de Janeiro in 2016, Woo became the first South Korean diver to reach an Olympic final, finishing 11th in the men’s 10-meter platform.
South Korea will make its world championships debuts in open water swimming and men’s and women’s water polo.
It got spots in these events as the host nation, and South Korea hastily put together teams for open water swimming and women’s water polo for the competition.
American sensation Caeleb Dressel will be one of the biggest international stars.
He picked up seven gold medals in men’s swimming at the last world championships in 2017 to equal Michael Phelps’ mark for most titles at a single competition.
Dressel will try to match that feat in Gwangju, and even the great Phelps never managed to win seven world titles in back-to-back world championships.
Another male swimming star, Sun Yang of China, will be chasing his fourth consecutive title in the men’s 400m freestyle.
On the women’s side, American Katie Ledecky will try to rewrite the record books in Gwangju.
From 2013 to 2017, Ledecky won three gold medals — in 400m, 800m and 1,500m freestyle — in three consecutive world championships.
She owns the world records in all three events and will try to sweep those three distances at an unprecedented fourth straight worlds.
Ledecky already owns the record for most world titles by a female swimmer, with 14.
Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden, who has been competing at world championships since 2009, will look to add to her tally of seven gold, four silver and one bronze. Three of those gold medals came in 2017.