Why Tunisia’s Olympic hero Ahmed Hafnaoui is prioritising school over swimming meets

One year on from causing the shock of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Hafnaoui is getting to grips with a new culture, and hopes to retain his title in at Paris 2024.

4 min By Andrew Binner | Created 7 November 2022
Ahmed Hafnaoui
(Picture by 2021 Getty Images)

If anyone’s looking for swimming Olympic champion Ahmed Hafnaoui, you’ll most likely find him hitting the books at Indiana University.

After causing arguably the shock of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics (held in 2021) by winning the men’s 400m freestyle gold medal as the final’s slowest qualifier, the Tunisian caught the eye of NCAA swimming powerhouses California and Texas.

But the 6-foot-5 teenager committed instead to the Hoosiers, largely to follow in some famous footsteps.

“Of course, I know Mark Spitz. Who doesn’t know him?” Hafnaoui, now 19, told the Indy Star of the nine-time Olympic champion and former Indiana student.

“I’m pretty excited to swim here. They have a legacy of champions here. I want to be one of the NCAA champs.”

READ MORE: Five things to know about Ahmed Hafnaoui

Becoming NCAA eligible for Indiana swimming

However, it wasn't that simple.

Hafnaoui went on to seal 1500m silver at the Short Course World Championships in December 2021, before suddenly disappearing from swimming.

In fact, he didn’t compete in a competitive race from April to August 2022, raising many eyebrows when he skipped the 2022 World Championships in Budapest. He also did not participate in the Mediterranean Games this past summer. 

Eventually it was revealed that Hafnaoui, who is still learning English, had taken a break from the water in order to improve his grades.

“It was the language, communication, the food, the weather, all of that was a big change for me,” he revealed.

Despite this effort, in October he was ruled out of competing for the college in 2022/23 on academic grounds.

But he had improved sufficiently to receive “partial qualifier” status, meaning the north African prodigy retained his full scholarship, can train with the team, and can attend classes.

He is also free to compete in outside competitions, like the 2022 World Short Course Championships in Melbourne this December.

As long as a 2.0 GPA is maintained this season, the Olympic gold medallist will become fully eligible to compete for the varsity squad next season.

“When he trains, you can see he is an Olympic champion,” Indiana head coach Ray Looze said. “If we can just get him settled, he’ll be just fine.”

Ahmed Hafnaoui in action at the FINA Short Course World Championships in 2021.
Ahmed Hafnaoui in action at the FINA Short Course World Championships in 2021. (2021 Getty Images)

Ahmed Hafnaoui's meteoric rise

Indiana’s freestyle group will benefit immeasurably simply by training with Hafnaoui, and the college’s massive efforts to sign him speak volumes of his meteoric rise.

The Tunis native first gained attention domestically when he broke a national record held by Ous Mellouli, the only other Tunisian swimmer to win Olympic gold, aged 14.

But he was never a remarkable athlete on the global stage.

At the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires, Hafnaoui could only manage eighth place in the 400 free, and 10th at the 2019 World Juniors.

But in 2020, he was spotted by an Indiana coach at an event in Monaco, and head coach Ray Looze secured his verbal commitment.

A few months later at the Tokyo Olympics, Hafnaoui became a global swimming icon.

“It was just a dream, and it came true,” the athlete continued.

“I went from a normal swimmer to a star in my country. People started viewing me differently and I enjoyed that!”

The swimming world never sits still for long, and Hafnaoui will have his work cut out if he is to remain the Olympic champion at Paris 2024.

Demonstrating this point, Australia’s Elijah Winington won the 400m free world title in June in a final where the whole podium achieved a faster time than the Tunisian’s Olympic gold medal-winning effort.

But if Hafnaoui can win an Olympic title essentially through raw talent, just imagine what he will be capable of after two full seasons training in the prestigious Indiana programme.

“They are just excited to have me with them. I’m just vibing with them,” he said. “It’s good for me to be here.”

Hafnaoui will be a different swimmer in Paris, and he will look to shock the world once more.

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