Tuesday, September 19, 2000

First Olympic drowning averted

Swimmer from Equatorial Guinea struggles to stay afloat

AP Sports Writer

        SYDNEY, Australia — Eric Moussambani flailed his arms wildly, water splashing all around, the end of pool lurking just out of reach. Someone learning to swim? No, this was the Olympic pool.

        Moussambani, a 22-year-old swimmer (using the term loosely) from Equatorial Guinea, brought the crowd to its feet in the preliminaries of the men's 100-meter freestyle with a huffing, puffing performance.

        If there had been a lifeguard on duty, he probably would have jumped in to make a save.

        But then, Moussambani has only been swimming since January and was racing more than 50 meters for the first time in his life. He never put his head underwater — probably a good idea — and virtually came to a stop about 10 meters from the end, facing a desperate struggle just to stay afloat.

        Finally, he reached the wall. Once there, he grabbed on for dear life.

        “I want to send hugs and kisses to the crowd,” the French-speaking Moussambani said through an interpreter Tuesday (Monday night EST). “It was their cheering that kept me going.”

        He was invited to the Olympics even though he didn't meet qualifying standards designed to weed out marginal entries like Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, whose hapless performance in ski jumping at the 1988 Winter Games gained him international attention.

        The program that brought Moussambani to Sydney was pushed by IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch as a way of spreading sports to non-traditional countries.

        Now, we have “Eric the Eagle,” hailing from an island nation off the west coast of Africa.

        Moussambani, who trains in a 20-meter pool with no lane markers less than a mile from his home, carried the national flag in the opening ceremony, leading an 11-person team that also includes a female swimmer.

        He arrived at the Olympic pool bright and early to compete in the first heat of the morning against two similar entrants, Karim Bare of Niger and Farkhod Oripov of Tajikistan.

        It became a one-man race — Moussambani against the water — when the other swimmers inexplicably jumped in together before the start buzzer and were disqualified.

        Moussambani, wearing a loose-fitting, traditional blue swimsuit with the drawstring hanging out front, flopped into the water by himself and headed off on his long, tortuous journey. At the halfway point, he actually made a semblance of a flip turn.

        The crowd at Sydney International Aquatic Center, barely noticing at first, began to cheer louder and louder as his strokes became more and more hopeless.

        “I was hurting going out,” Moussambani said. “Coming back ...”

        Say no more. The anguished look on his face told it all.

        Moussambani was timed — and, no, they didn't use an hourglass — at 1 minute, 52.72 seconds. That was more than a minute longer than the fastest swimmers. Heck, it was more than seven seconds slower than Pieter van den Hoogenband's world record in the 200.

        Once he caught his breath, Moussambani was an instant media star, stopping for interviews with dozens of reporters and camera crews in the mixed zone. He smiled and cheerfully recounted his ordeal.

        And get this: He hopes to swim again at the 2004 Olympics.

Complete Olympics coverage at Cincinnati.com/olympics

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