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20 years on – the story of Eric ‘the Eel’ Moussambani

by ZwemZa on August 30th, 2020

Eric Moussambani set the slowest men’s 100m freestyle time recorded in the Olympics. Photo / Getty Images

In the space of just two minutes, Eric Moussambani went from unknown athlete to worldwide cult hero.

Moussambani stood alone on the starting blocks in front of a packed crowd at the Sydney Olympic Park Aquatic Centre. The representative from Equatorial Guinea was the only competitor in his heat in the men’s 100m freestyle at the 2000 Olympic Games, after athletes from Nigeria and Tajikistan were disqualified for jumping off the blocks early.

Moussambani had only started swimming less than a year beforehand, and it was the first time he had seen an Olympic-sized swimming pool. He earned qualification through a wildcard draw designed to encourage participate by developing countries.

Starting in lane five – the middle of the pool – he painted a lonely figure as he stood waiting for the gun with a 17,500-strong crowd watching on. Fans in the arena might not have known his name beforehand, but they were about to witness history.

Moussambani made an energetic start but by the end of the heat he was struggling to stay afloat. He touched the wall in a time of 1min52.72sec – the slowest time ever recorded in the event at the Olympics – becoming a hero around the world in the process.

Despite being alone in his heat, his time was too slow to qualify for the next round.

But while he made history in the pool, it wasn’t until he returned to the athlete’s area that he realised just how famous he had become.

Speaking to the Sydney Morning Herald, the cult hero, who was given the nickname ‘Eric the Eel’, opened up on the moment and what was to follow.

“In that last 50 metres, to be honest, I was so tired I was going to stop,” Moussambani said. “I couldn’t feel my legs or arms, everything was very heavy. When I had people clapping and cheering my name, that gave me more power to finish.

Eric Moussambani alone on the starting blocks at the 2000 Olympic Games. Photo / Getty Images

Eric Moussambani alone on the starting blocks at the 2000 Olympic Games. Photo / Getty Images

“After the race I went to the changing room and I laid down because I still couldn’t feel my body. I went back to my apartment in the Olympic village and I slept from 11am to 4pm. When I woke up, on the television I could see my pictures. I thought I did something wrong.

“When I went to the Olympic restaurant where the athletes eat, that’s when people started asking me for autographs and pictures. That’s when I realised I became very famous.

“That was a big experience for me because I used to be a very shy guy. People started to look for me in the village.”

Becoming famous for his efforts, Moussambani continued to swim after the event and became far more competitive in the pool.

By 2004, he had improved his personal best from that of his time in Sydney to 56.9sec – almost a full minute faster. He wasn’t given the opportunity to show the world his improvement however, with a passport issue keeping him out of the 2004 Olympics in Athens.

However, in 2006, he was given an opportunity on a bigger stage – being invited to an event in Germany where he again improved his personal best.

“They invited me to Dusseldorf in Germany in 2006 for a show. I had to swim 100 metres with others swimmers and I did it in 52.18,” Moussambani told the Herald. “That was my best time. I didn’t go any better.”

That time would have earned gold in the 100m freestyle at every Olympic Games until 1968.

Now, two decades on from reaching Olympic fame, his passion for the sport remains as he now coaches Equatorial Guinea’s national swimming team. The country, which did not have a full Olympic-sized pool in 2000, now has two.

Moussambani said he was hopeful the country would be able to send four swimmers to the Tokyo Olympics next year.

“When I was preparing for the Sydney Olympics I didn’t have a swimming pool. I was swimming in the beach or the river. Our swimmers have an opportunity to swim in a pool now, so when they go to an Olympic Games they won’t be scared like I was.

“I’m trying to do my best for my swimmers. It’s a lot of work to do.

“If we have two or three swimmers, there is not enough chance we will win a medal in the Olympic Games. When it comes to African Games, yes, we have a chance. For Olympic Games, if we have 12 good swimmers, we may have an opportunity to win a medal.”

NZ Herald

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