Note: This story is part of the book, ‘Rings to Olympics‘ which celebrates Olympic champions for their grit.
Eric Moussambani became famous throughout the World for creating a world record….for being the slowest swimmer in the history of the Olympic games. Yet, he is heralded as the living symbol of the Olympic spirit. Here is his story.
Eric Moussamban was born on May 31, 1978, in Malabo, the capital city of Equatorial Guinea, a small country in central Africa. As a young boy, he loved sports and dabbled in football, basketball and volleyball. During a game of basketball, he broke his hand. Shy from that painful experience, he decided to avoid any contact sport and focus on individual games that are safe. Swimming fit that bill. However, he was not good at it and took the help of a local fisherman to accompany him lest he drowned. He never had any big plans for the sport and just enjoyed the activity. However, things were about to change rapidly for him.
On a summer afternoon in April 2000, by then an Engineering student, Eric was casually listening to the radio when he heard a call for interested persons to come for sports trials. This call was to select athletes to be part of the national swimming team representing the country in the Sydney Olympics in Australia. He decided to give it a shot and went to Hotel Ureca, the venue for the trials, on May 6, 2000. To his surprise, there were only two participants who turned up: he and another girl. The selectors asked him to get in the pool and swim. It was a small pool, about 12 meters in length. He barely did a few strokes in the pool when they stopped him. They saw enough and told him that he was selected for the Olympics. Until that time, Eric had not even heard of the Olympic games. He had not stepped outside his country even once. Now, he is selected to represent his country in the World’s greatest sporting spectacle.
His luck is mainly thanks to a program by the International Olympic Committee (IOC). They designed a program to encourage sports in developing countries. The Olympic governing body issued several wild-card invitations to the games. They get selected even if they don’t meet the qualifying standards.
Here is an essential lesson for all of us. Giving a shot, immaterial of our chances of success, is important. Had Eric not taken action after listening to the radio, he would have missed the opportunity of his lifetime. We need to back ourselves to take those chances the way Eric did.
Now, back to the story.
Eric had to go to the national library to learn more about the Olympics. He started to train in the only swimming pool in Malabo, where the trials were held. However, the only time available was between 5 to 6 AM when he could train. The other hours were reserved for the hotel guests. He would head to the local river for more practice. He didn’t have a coach. He asked a man who knew how to swim to help him teach proper swimming techniques.
Fast forward three months, and Eric was on his way to Australia, his very first overseas trip in his life. After landing at the Olympic village, he went to check the swimming pool and was shocked to see its size. An Olympic sized swimming pool is 50 meters long, far bigger and intimidating than the 12-meter pool he trained in.
He noticed swimmers from other countries training hard. He began observing their techniques. He reached out to a few swimmers for tips. Some ignored him, and some helped him out.
The D-Day finally arrived. It was time for the heats to select the swimmers who would qualify for the finals. A coach from South Africa saw Eric in Bermuda shorts that he had bought from a second-hand shop. The coach pointed out that this is not the proper attire and he would get disqualified. The coach then gave him a Speedo and a pair of goggles.
At the qualification heats, he was pitted against two other swimmers from Niger and Tajikistan. However, both of them jumped the gun, which means instant disqualification. Eric stood there confused not knowing what to do. He was told that he would have to swim alone in the heats. Just prior to the race, Eric was under the impression that he was participating in the 50 meters race when he was told that it was a 100 meters race. He had never swum competitively that long. Nervously, he began the race on his own. After a confident dive, he did well in the first 50 meters. However, things started to go south quickly. Tiredness began to show. His lack of technique meant that he was exerting too much effort for little movement. He was visibly struggling.
The fact that he was the only swimmer in the pool meant that he had the full attention of the 17,000 spectators and all the TV cameras. Seeing that he was struggling, the crowd started to root for him with loud cheers. This boosted his spirit, and he barely managed to reach the end line without drowning. He clocked in 1:52, which is the slowest time ever recorded in the history of Olympics. On the same day, Dutch swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband set a world record of 47.84 sec in the semi-final. He would eventually go on to win gold.
Even though Eric technically won his heats, he was disqualified because of the time. He was more relieved than disappointed. Dead tired from his swimming ordeal, he went to his room and slept 7 hours straight. He woke up in the evening to realise that he had become a media sensation. He may have lost the race, but he made a splash. He became the darling of the media. They hailed him for the Olympic spirit of not giving up and giving one’s best. After all, he beat his own personal best. He earned the moniker, ‘Eric the Eel’. Countless interviews followed. The World loves underdogs who don’t give up. He even got a two-year endorsement from Speedo, whose brand of trunks he had worn for his Olympics swimming ordeal. He toured the World, giving speeches.
He became an icon in his country. Thanks to him, there are now two Olympic sized swimming pools in Equatorial Guinea. He laid the foundation for the future athletes of his country. He was appointed head coach of the national swimming team. He got a job as an IT Engineer working for an oil company. Even though he never participated in another Olympic game, he went on to become a better swimmer. He shaved off nearly a minute from his inglorious Olympic timing and clocked in his personal best of 56.9 seconds.
That painful solo crawl in the swimming pool by Eric embodied the Olympic spirit of putting in the best effort and surpassing one’s limit.