“I come from Equatorial Guinea, a small country in the centre of Africa,” explains Eric Moussambani, who emerged as an unlikely hero of the Olympic pool at Sydney 2000. “I started swimming when I left school. We didn’t have a swimming pool. We didn’t have anything, and I went to train at a private hotel pool that was about 13 metres long I think.
“I trained on my own and I had no swimming experience. The pool was only available from 5am to 6am and I was only able to train for three hours a week. I used to go swimming in rivers and the sea too, though. The fishermen would tell me how to use my legs and how to swim. There was nothing professional about it at all.”
A different world
Moussambani was a wide-eyed 22-year-old when he made his way to Sydney for the Games: “I’d never even heard of Sydney or Australia, and it was the first time I’d ever been outside my country. The trip took three days and there were a lot of stopovers.”
The intrepid Moussambani was awestruck when he arrived at the Olympic Village and saw the facilities at Homebush Bay, home to the first 50m pool he had ever set eyes on: “I was scared by the sight of the first pool I’d be racing in.”;
In preparing for his event, Moussambani trained at the same time as the US team and took the opportunity to study their techniques closely and learn from them. He also received assistance from a South African coach. After checking with Moussambani that he really was a swimmer competing at the Games, the coach handed him a pair of competition trunks and some goggles and helped him work on his technique.
Touching the wall
Moussambani’s turn in the spotlight came on the morning of 19 September 2000, when he stepped out for the opening heat of the men’s 100m freestyle competition with Nigeria’s Karin Bare and Tajikistan’s Farkhod Oripov for company. After his fellow competitors were disqualified for making false starts, Eric suddenly found himself racing on his own in lane 5.
“I swam the first 50m really well,” recalls Moussambani. “I focused all my energy on telling myself to keep going and to make it to the end. I knew that the whole world was watching me: my family, my country, my mother, my sister and my friends. That’s why I was telling myself that I had to keep going, that I had to finish, even if I was alone in the pool. I wasn’t worried about the time. All I wanted to do was finish.”
After turning for the second length, however, Moussambani began to pay for expending so much energy on the first. As his legs stiffened, he had the impression he was going nowhere.
Taking up the story, he says: “It was then that I started to hear the crowd screaming and shouting, encouraging me to ‘Go, go, go’. It gave me the strength to finish, and when I touched the wall I said to myself: ‘Oh, I’ve done it’.
“I was the first swimmer from my country to compete in the 100m freestyle in an international competition. I was so happy with that achievement, even if my time of 1:52 was not very good. The Olympic spirit is all about taking part, and I think it’s that strength and spirit that made me famous.”
The media whirlwind
After receiving a thunderous ovation from the Australian fans and the congratulations of those around the pool, the unsuspecting Moussambani then found himself thrust into the media spotlight, with the whole world wanting to know more about the unknown swimmer from Equatorial Guinea.
“Suddenly I started to see myself and my race on all the TV stations around the world, CNN and the rest,” recalls Moussambani, whose autograph was also in demand in the Olympic Village. “I also gave a lot of interviews and the whole thing totally changed my life.”
Though his solitary race at Sydney 2000 would be his first and last Olympic appearance, Moussambani went on to set a new national 100m freestyle record of 57 seconds. Thanks to his efforts, Equatorial Guinea now boasts two 50m pools, while he has gone on to become his country’s swimming team coach.
“I’m trying to promote swimming in my country,” explains Moussambani, who is preparing to take his team to Rio 2016. “I try to help young people who want to become good swimmers. I want to encourage them to swim and to take up sport.”