TOKYO — The longest of Olympic swimming longshots stretched for the wall, turned, and for one last split-second, as his eyes searched for a scoreboard here at the Tokyo Aquatics Center, Ahmed Hafnaoui remained a complete unknown. Then he saw his name next to a “1.” He opened his mouth. A primal scream shook the air.
It carried the excitement and disbelief of an 18-year-old Tunisian who, on the second full day of these Olympics, became their unlikeliest champion so far. Who wants to swim at a U.S. college, but doesn’t yet know where he’ll go. Who, when asked for some biographical color, said he enjoys “hanging out with friends, playing video games,” just like millions of average 18-year-old dudes.
And who, in 2019, the last full calendar year of swim meets, ranked outside the world’s top 100 in the 400 meter freestyle. Two days ago, entering Tokyo, he ranked 16th. On Saturday night, he qualified for the final of the nearly four-minute-long event by a margin of 0.17 seconds. His personal-best time was more than two seconds off the pace.
So he swam from Lane 8, and when he hit the water, he merely told himself: “Go faster than yesterday.”
He kept pace with the Australians, Americans, and Europeans, and, surely he’ll fade, swimming aficionados thought. But no. Hafnaoui dragged himself through the water, to the wall, and then out of it, and when he realized that he’d chased down Australia’s Jack McLaughlin, he wanted to celebrate and cry and process all of this, all at once. He shook his fists, and ripped off his swim cap, and hopped up on the lane line, and slapped the water, and yelled, louder than anybody else in an astonished arena.
And among the many who were stunned was Hafnaoui himself.
“Of course I surprised myself,” he said.
WHAT A FINISH.
From lane 8, Tunisia's Ahmed Hafnaoui wins Olympic gold and @TeamUSA's Kieran Smith gets the bronze. #TokyoOlympics
📱 NBC Sports App pic.twitter.com/7it1V0dFKm
— #TokyoOlympics (@NBCOlympics) July 25, 2021
Over an hour later, he was still coming to terms with what he’d accomplished. “I just can't accept that,” he said. “It's too unbelievable.”
He stepped to a medal ceremony podium with tears welling in his eyes. He meandered through a media maze with an innocent smile spread across his face. He didn’t quite know where to hold his medal or what to do with it. Kiss it? Bite it? He posed for one photo, with the other two medalists, on the outside of the three. American Kieran Smith, who won bronze, had to usher Hafnaoui to the gold medalist's traditional place in the middle.
He wore a simplistic gray t-shirt with a tiny Tunisian flag emblem, navy shorts and black shoes. He held flowers and a water bottle as journalists asked him the most basic of questions, such as, Do you speak English? Where do you live? What do you like to do?
The secretary general of Tunisia’s Olympic committee accompanied him, at one point grabbing the medal from Hafnaoui’s chest to take a picture. Toward the end of the maze, more Tunisian officials flooded into the room, overjoyed. Later, the Olympic committee’s president kissed him on the cheek.
What’s it like to be a national hero? a reporter asked.
Hafnaoui laughed, quietly. The thought left him bereft. “I don’t know,” he said with a smile. “I can’t believe that.”
Tunisia had only ever had a swimmer qualify for one Olympic final entering these Tokyo Games. That man, Ous Mellouli, won gold. There was zero expectation that Hafnaoui would repeat the feat. Back home, where it wasn’t yet 4 a.m., most of the North African country’s 12 million people slept.
Hafnaoui’s family didn’t, of course, but he hadn’t yet spoken to them as he left a news conference trailed by a newfound entourage of Olympic committee officials and reporters. He yearned to talk to them; to his mother and sisters; to his dad, who’d signed him up for a local swim club at age 6; to the people who’d supported him as he grew into the sport, into a U.S. college hopeful. Asked if he had any specific university he was interested in, or any scholarship offers, he said: "It depends on my results next year."
He hadn't seemed to consider yet that maybe, just maybe, an Olympic gold medal could get him anywhere he’d like to go.
He seemed a bit overwhelmed, inundated by all the attention, when one of his entourage broke up another impromptu interview on the sidewalk outside the Aquatics Center to hand him a smartphone.
Hafnaoui grabbed it, and looked at the screen. His face lit up.
On it, via video call, he saw his family, and before being whisked off to the latest responsibility that came with unexpected Olympic glory, he burst into joy.
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