TOKYO–Tunisian swimmer Ahmed Ayoub Hafnaoui was the stunning winner of the 400-metre freestyle at the Tokyo Games on Sunday, beating a field of faster and older athletes and stunning the so-called “swimming superpowers”.
The 18-year-old finished in 3 minutes, 43.26 seconds, punctuating his victory with loud yelling that echoed in the mostly empty 15,000-seat arena.
“I believe when I touched the wall and I saw myself first,” he said. “I was so surprised.”
Australia’s Jack McLoughlin earned silver and American Kieran Smith took bronze. The top three were separated by less than a second after the eight-lap race.
“When I hit the water, I was just thinking about the medal, not the time,” Hafnaoui said.
He squeaked into the final by 14-hundredths of a second, landing him in the far outside lane. The fastest qualifiers were in the middle of the pool.
Hafnaoui made sure he’ll be remembered with a performance that brought joy to audiences back-home in the pandemic and economic crisis stricken nation of Tunisia.
He joined Oussama Mellouli as the only Tunisians to win a gold medal in swimming. Mellouli won the 1,500 freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Games, one of his three career Olympic medals. He also won gold in the 10km marathon at the 2012 Summer Olympics held in London.
Mellouli reached out with a good-luck message to the teenager before the race.
“I wish to be like him one day,” Hafnaoui said.
The teen who trains in the capital of Tunis is the North Africa country’s fifth Olympic gold medalist. Past Tunisian gold medalists included long distance runner Mohammed Gammoudi, swimmer Oussama Mellouli and 1,500m runner Habiba Ghribi.
The moment of triumph was overwhelming for Hafnaoui.
“I just can’t believe it. It’s a dream and it became true. It was great. it was my best race ever,” he said.
“I was in tears because when I see the flag of my country and I hear the anthem in the background, it was great,” he added. “I’m so proud of it. I dedicate it to all the Tunisian people.”
Hafnaoui, who joined Tunisia’s national swimming programme as a 12-year-old, was all smiles at the medal ceremony and news conference where he was mobbed by reporters and inundated by requests for selfies.
Hafnaoui heaped praise on his coaches, saying they had been so supportive and had “worked too hard”.
Hafnaoui, whose father Mohamed Hafnaoui was a former member of the national basketball team, will race in the 800m freestyle on Tuesday. He said he plans to go to college in the United States
Smith, who claimed bronze, said he knew nothing about the Tunisian coming into the race.
“He’s the Olympic champion in the 400 metre freestyle. That’s all I know about him,” said the American. “I’m very proud of him.”