Swimming has a new sprint king and Australia a new sporting superstar after James Magnussen powered his way to the 100m freestyle world title in Shanghai on Thursday night.

Magnussen, 20, became the first Australian man to win swimming's glamour event at a world championships and in doing so put himself in pole position to become the first to claim the Olympic 100m freestyle title since Michael Wenden in 1968.

The Port Macquarie swimmer was hot favourite for Thursday night's final and did not disappoint, producing his trademark strong finish to clock 47.63 seconds and touch ahead of Brent Hayden of Canada (47.95) and France's William Meynard (48.00).

"I was so rapt with that … I got to the end of the pool and it was a bit of an out-of-body experience when I looked up and saw the number one, just so elated," said Magnussen, who celebrated by sitting on the lane ropes with his arms raised.

"It means the world to me and I know it means a lot to Australian swimming as well.

"First person to win that event in a world championships for Australia , which is a pretty big deal.

"I think it puts men's sprinting in Australia back in the spot light."

Magnussen had already produced a stunning 47.49-second lead-out performance in Australia's 4x100m freestyle relay win on Sunday night, the fastest ever 100m swim without a "super suit".

The performance had coaches from around the globe stunned and rivals effectively racing for second place, with world record holder Cesar Cielo (fourth, 48.01) virtually conceding defeat before the semi-finals.

After breaking the 48 second barrier twice more since the relay swim, Magnussen now believes Cielo's world mark of 46.91 set in a supersuit at the Rome 2009 world titles is a realistic goal.

"I guess that 46.9 by Cesar is starting to look very human, it's a real goal of mine now looking forward," he said.

Magnussen's triumph capped his rapid transformation from quietly-spoken country boy to a competitor described by Australian coach Leigh Nugent as a "battleship" who could "bury his opponents."

The swimmer was seen as a raw talent with huge potential when he broke into the national team last year before rising to prominence at this year's national titles in April.

His win in the 100m final there earned him a first individual swim at a major international meet after having to be content as a relay swimmer last year.

He came to Shanghai ranked third in the world this year but few, including he and his coach Brant Best, expected such huge strides forward – especially after he battled a bout of pneumonia in the lead-up.

While many of his rivals had never heard of him prior to the meet, Magnussen is now the man they will have to catch heading towards London – a tag that sits well with him.

"That's something I'm happy to have on my shoulders," he said.

"There was obviously a lot of pressure on my shoulders this week and it's been a bit of a burden since the relay but I've shown I've been able to deal with that pressure now and I'm looking forward to dealing with it next year."