Twenty-one years ago, Eric Moussambani became the first swimmer from Equatorial Guinea, one of the smallest countries on the African continent, to compete in the Olympics. Soon, he would become a star and cult hero after swimming a 100-meter freestyle in the Olympic pool in Sydney with 1:52.72 time. He recorded the slowest men’s 100m freestyle ever in the Olympics, swimming so slowly that he almost drowned. But with support from the crowd, the then-22-year-old was able to finish it.
“At the end of the race, I felt grateful above all because at least I had been able to represent my country, because I had managed to finish those 100 metres, which I had never done before,” Moussambani, who was nicknamed ‘Eric the Eel’ by fans and sponsors, told AFP recently.
Ahead of Sydney 2000, Moussambani did not even know what the Olympics were all about. He was also yet to set foot in a pool. He had just learned to swim and had never seen a 50-meter pool. When he was young, he played basketball but broke his arm. “I had a panicky fear of playing again. I became interested in swimming. When I was about 19, 20 years old, I started to learn with a fisherman because I couldn’t swim,” he told AFP.
About three months to the start of the Games in Sydney, Moussambani heard on the radio that the national swimming federation was looking for swimmers. On May 6, 2000, he went along to a trial at the Hotel Ureca in Malabo and was the only man present. There was a female.
“I went in the pool, started moving my legs, my arms, and they said, ‘OK, that’s enough, get out’,” Moussambani recalled in an interview with Sportsmail. “They told me, ‘Start swimming because you will be going to the Olympics in three months’.”
Not knowing what the Olympic Games were, he went to the national library and started looking up Olympic Games, he said.
“Moussambani’s spot in the 100m freestyle in Sydney was secure as Equatorial Guinea had been awarded a wildcard under an International Olympic Committee program to promote developing nations,” the Daily Mail explained.
With just a few months away from the start of the Games, Moussambani had no coach. He asked a man from the Hotel Ureca to coach him. “He said OK but from 5:00 am to 6:00 am in the morning because the pool was for the guests,” Moussambani recalled.
That pool was 12 meters long. He also trained in a crocodile-infested river. So when he arrived in Sydney for the Games, he was shocked to see a 50m pool. “When they showed me the Olympic pool, I had never seen one so big, I thought ‘seriously, I can’t’,” Moussambani told AFP. “During my training in Sydney I never swam all the way to the end,” he said. “Honestly, I couldn’t swim.”
“There were South African and American swimmers, I took the opportunity to watch how they moved their feet, their technique, I asked them questions.”
Two days before his race, he was watching videos of the swimming at the Atlanta Olympics and how they were diving and doing turns. There and then, he called his mom and told her he wasn’t prepared. “But in my room the day before I said to myself, I have to do this for myself and for my country’,” he said to Sportsmail.
On September 19, 2000, he got ready for the 100 meters but was told he didn’t have the right equipment. “A coach from South Africa saw me wearing Bermuda shorts I’d bought at a second-hand shop and a towel and asked me: ‘Where are you going?’ ‘Swimming,’ I told him. ‘You are going to be disqualified, your outfit is not regulation, it looks like you’re going to the beach.’ So he gave me a swimming costume and goggles,” Moussambani said.
At the start of the race, Moussambani’s two other competitors, from Tajikistan and Niger, were disqualified for false starts. That left Moussambani to swim alone. He began well but in the second lap, he started struggling. “This guy doesn’t look like he’s going to make it,” said BBC commentator Adrian Moorhouse at the time. “This guy is going to have to get hold of the lane rope.”
But thanks to the 17,000 crowd, Moussambani was able to make it home, more than 64 seconds behind Dutch swimmer Pieter van den Hoogenband, who would win gold that same day. “The last 50m was the hardest time in my life,” said Moussambani. “There was a time that I couldn’t feel my legs, my arms. I was just moving my arms but I didn’t feel like I was moving. I was very, very tired. I was giving my last effort to complete it. I was almost, almost, drowning.
“But when I heard people clapping and cheering my name that gave me more power and more courage to complete the other 50m. It was the first time in my life I swam 100m. At the end, I felt so tired that I couldn’t even speak. TV were trying to ask me questions but I couldn’t breathe. I needed air. I went to the changing room and fainted. They gave me air and after 15 minutes I woke up and I asked ‘What am I doing here?’ I said I needed to sleep. I slept from 10 am until 5 pm,” he told Sportsmail.
Paula Barila Bolopa, who was Equatorial Guinea’s other entrant in Sydney, swam her heat in the women’s 50m three days after Moussambani’s 100 meters and also recorded the slowest ever time in the event.
Despite being mocked initially, Moussambani soon became very famous. He said that event transformed his life. “I did a lot of advertising in Japan and Australia. I traveled,” said Moussambani, who learned to swim very well some years after the Olympics. He also became a symbol for swimming in his country, which now has two Olympic-size pools.
“I am a national coach in the swimming federation of Equatorial Guinea, my life has changed completely. I work to ensure that our country has good swimmers, teaching them the fundamentals of swimming.”
Moussambani, now 43 with a wife and four children, divides his life between his work in an oil company and the swimming federation. “I did something that for the Olympics was significant. Even today, they use my video as an example for many people,” he said.