Canadian Ryan Cochrane raced to silver in the men's 800-metre freestyle Wednesday, the team's first in swimming at the world championships in Shanghai.

The podium performance came a year to the day before the opening ceremonies of the 2012 London Olympics, and the significance of the date wasn't lost on the Victoria swimmer.

"The Olympic year always seems a ways away, it's scary but exciting," said Cochrane. "I'm happy where I'm at in my career right now, but I would like to be winning events, and that's what I'm going to keep aiming for."

Sun Yang of China took a narrow lead from the start before pulling away from the Canadian over the final 100 metres for the gold. With the large crowd at the Oriental Sports Center cheering him on, Sun finished in seven minutes 38.57 seconds.

Cochrane won the silver in a Canadian record 7:41.86, lowering his previous record of 7:41.92 from the 2009 world championships.

Hungary's Gergo Kis took the bronze in 7:44.94.

Cochrane's medal was Canada's fourth at these world championships — Canada captured a silver and bronze in diving and a bronze in synchronized swimming.

His podium performance is also expected to kick-start some strong swims from the Canadian team with some of the squad's best events still to come.

The 22-year-old Cochrane claimed bronze in the 1,500 metres, his stronger event, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and he'll will be one of Canada's top medal hopes heading into London. They're lofty expectations he said he'll gladly shoulder.

"I'm excited now that we can talk about being on the podium in London and hopefully bettering my performance from Beijing, that's what we work towards every day," Cochrane said. "I think it's great that everyone has these expectations, and I'm really happy we can talk about winning.

"I think if we want to start winning gold medals we need to talk about it as a national team."

Cochrane said his 1,500-metre race later this week will provide a better benchmark of where he's at heading into the final run-up to the London Games. But his training so far this season, and his performance Wednesday, he added, are both big confidence builders.

"I know coming into this competition I had the best year of training I think I've had in my entire career, it's exciting coming into a world championship knowing that you've done more work than you ever have," he said. "I always want to be on the top of the podium, and I had a really exciting year last year but what it comes down to it, it's about the Olympics, this is what we train for, and each quadrennial it seems to go by faster and faster.

"It's encouraging that this is where I'm at a year out, and I think we have a really amazing team that I'm really proud to be part of."

World record-holder Zhang Lin of China did not defend the title he won two years ago in Rome because team officials said he's out of shape. He failed to win an individual gold at November's Asian Games in Guangzhou, China.

Brent Hayden of Vancouver and Julia Wilkinson of Stratford, Ont., advanced to their respective finals.

Hayden raced to a time of 48.30 in the men's 100 freestyle semifinals, less than half a second off the fastest time posted by James Magnussen Australia who touched in 47.90. Hayden was 11th in the morning prelims.

"The first 50 in the prelims was way too slow and I knew the only way to make the final was not worry about how much that second length was going to hurt," said Hayden, the 2007 world champion in the event. "I took it out hard and just tried to hold on for dear life. My semi time was a lot better than I expected."

Wilkinson qualified fifth in the 50 backstroke, lowering her own Canadian record to 28.10.

"[Wilkinson] showed a lot of strength and a lot of character coming back from a rough couple of days," Canadian coach Randy Bennett said. "She's a great competitor and it will be exciting to see what she does in the final."

Audrey Lacroix of Montreal was 12th in the women's 200 butterfly semifinals.