Olympic Dreams: swimming hero Oussama Mellouli targets one last hurrah in Tokyo after a career of success, sacrifice and redemption

Exclusive interview: We speak to the Tunisian phenomenon who has made history with his achievements in the pool and in open water

As part of our buildup to the Tokyo Olympics we will be profiling Arab athletes and para-athletes as well as those from the Mena region hoping to make it to this summer's Games

Legendary Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli vividly remembers the first trip he made to the Olympics over two decades ago.

As a 16-year-old who grew up in a small Tunisian beach town before attending high school in the mountains in the south of France, Mellouli was so excited to get on the plane for his 20-hour journey to the Sydney Games that he stayed up the whole flight, walking around the aisles and watching movies.

"I thought it was so cool that I could watch movies on the plane," the two-time Olympic gold medallist told The National in a Zoom interview.

Mellouli had spent the time in the build-up to the Sydney Olympics training with the French federation, rubbing shoulders with swimmers he admired such as Franck Esposito and Xavier Marchand. When he flew to Australia with the French team, he was the first athlete from the Tunisian delegation to arrive at the Olympic Village.

“No coach, no managers, no team representatives, no one. I was the only Tunisian swimmer and I was the youngest athlete of the Tunisian contingency, all sports combined, going there. And I was the first at the Village,” he recalls.

“I had to deal with jet-lag, so I was up all night just walking around the Village, going to have ice cream at like 2am because the restaurant at the Olympic Village doesn’t close.

“I remember hearing that the US basketball team was coming so I was just looking for Kobe Bryant to show up at the Village and I saw him at the restaurant and obviously I spent hours just hanging out at the pool, watching Ian Thorpe train and watching Kieren Perkins train and just wanted to take pictures with these guys … so it was more like a fun touristic adventure rather than a competition.”

Mellouli took part in the 400m individual medley on his Olympic debut and placed 43rd among 45 swimmers.

“I just remember being so nervous that I went so fast the first 100 from all the nerves, I think I broke the national record in the 100 fly on my way out in the 400IM [Individual Medley] and then just completely died halfway through the race,” he says.

More than 20 years later, Mellouli is a world apart from that wide-eyed teenager who went to the Olympics as a tourist.

He has since carved his name in the history books in more ways than one – becoming Africa’s first male swimmer to win an individual Olympic gold medal, thanks to his victory in the 1,500m freestyle in Beijing 2008.

He is also the first Tunisian and first Arab to be crowned champion in swimming at an Olympic Games.

In 2012, Mellouli became the first athlete to ever win a medal in the pool and in open water at the same Games (1,500m bronze, 10km gold) and the first to take Olympic gold in the pool and in open water. They are unprecedented feats that separate him from so many other swimming legends.

One last hurrah

Ready to bid farewell to the sport, Mellouli is currently training to qualify for a sixth consecutive Olympic Games. If he successfully clinches a spot in the 10km open water event, he would become just the fourth swimmer in history to compete in six Olympics (behind Therese Alshammar, Lars Frolander and Derya Buyukuncu).

The pandemic has wreaked havoc with the global sporting calendar, leading to the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, along with the marathon swimming qualifiers, by a year. Mellouli has been stuck at his regular base in Mission Viejo, California since last March, unable to travel to other cities for training camps and waiting for competitions to pop back up on the FINA schedule (a World Cup meet in Doha in March is his next target).

He doesn’t sound too discouraged, though, by any of it and is determined to wrap up his career on his own terms.

“At this point, I’m going after Tokyo even if Covid kills me,” the 36-year-old says with a laugh.

“It’s the challenge, that’s what we live for, if you’re not challenged, there is no point of doing it. So the challenge of proving to myself that I could do it at this age and still be one of the best in the world at what I do, that’s what keeps me going.

“I really want to finish my career at the Olympic stage and that’s my major motivation. I really want to have one more race at the Olympics and challenge myself one more time

While it’s not time to say goodbye just yet, Mellouli reflects on his career with great pride and is aware of the rich legacy he leaves behind.

“I’m really proud of, one, my longevity, I think that’s something to be reckoned with. It takes a lot of discipline and sacrifice to make it to six Olympic Games,” he explains.

“I’m also proud of my versatility and I have to thank my coaches that really prepared me to be one of the most versatile swimmers in the history of the sport.

"A lot of people talk about the versatility of Michael Phelps and Chad Le Clos and Katinka Hosszu, winning multiple medals in different events, like the 100 fly, 200 fly, 200IM, 400IM … but I’m also very proud of my own versatility, which is being the only swimmer in the world to ever medal at World Championships in the 400 free, 400IM, 200IM, the 1,500 free, and then the 10km and 5km open water.

“That, in my opinion, is a very much different versatility and obviously very tough versatility to match. So I’m very proud of my versatility in that way.

“I’m also proud of being the first Arab athlete to do it. I think I opened the door and showcased the Arab dream in the sport of swimming.”

For the love of the sport

Longevity is becoming a common trend among star athletes across various sports. Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi are 35 and 33, respectively, and are still shining on the football pitch. Roger Federer and Serena Williams are 39 and remain forces to be reckoned with in tennis. LeBron James is 36, Tom Brady is 43.

Asked if he has drawn inspiration from any of these veterans, Mellouli said: “You mentioned sports that have different economics than the sport of swimming.

Huge incentives go in the lives of tennis players, basketball players, football players, so we don’t have that to be honest in the sport of swimming. So the sacrifice is much greater in a sport like swimming. We do it for the love of the sport.

“I carved my own path and made my own decisions to be honest and every time it took me to a new challenge and here we are at what looks like my final challenge, which is a sixth Olympic Games.”

The one constant in Mellouli’s entire career has been his pursuit of new challenges and figuring out ways to bounce back from disappointments.

When he went to the Athens Olympics in 2004, his heart was set on making the podium but he fell short, placing fifth in the 400IM. Mellouli set an African record that day but was six seconds slower than Phelps, who secured gold with a world record time of 4:08.26.

Mellouli was devastated by his near-miss and felt “borderline depressed”. He wanted to leave Athens immediately but forced himself to stick around for another week to support his fellow Tunisians and catch some of the other competitions. His disappointment did not linger for too long.

“A couple of months after Athens I bounced back and won (400IM) gold and (200IM) bronze at World Championships (short course), so that was huge,” he says.

The period between Athens 2004 and Beijing 2008 was a roller coaster for Mellouli. His upward trajectory continued as he picked up medals at the 2005 World Championships in Montreal, in both the 400IM and 400 free.

In 2007, he won 800 free gold and 400 free silver at Worlds in Melbourne but those results were later nullified due to a failed drugs test that earned him an 18-month ban.

Mellouli’s failed test was because he took Adderall, an Attention Deficit Disorder medication that was found to be commonly taken by students to help them cram for exams.

The then University of Southern California student said he had taken it to try and hand in a paper on time at school ahead of a big swim meet but CAS still handed him a lengthy suspension that ended just before the Olympic qualifiers for Beijing 2008.

“It was very tough. Seeing all my friends going to competition and travelling and competing and having a regular schedule and I had to stay home and train by myself,” he admits.

“I took ownership of my mistake, because I did make a mistake, and I wanted to get my redemption; I didn’t want to go down in history as the swimmer that failed a drug test and that was it. Because you know they would have labelled me as the guy that failed a drug test and never came back. So I had to prove my naysayers otherwise and I did, in front of the whole world, on the best platform in sports which is the Olympics.”

Mellouli’s triumph in the 1,500m freestyle in Beijing proved to be the ultimate redemption, especially considering how little time he had between the end of his ban and the start of the Games.

“The 1,500, to me I always look back at it as a gift from God. It’s something very special that people would spend a lifetime chasing, to achieve something like that. It was something great,” he says.

He maintains that an 18-month suspension was a “harsh punishment”.

“The real cheaters are not being caught and not being punished. You look at what’s going in Russia, and in China, and major cases in for US athletes that have been undetected and won major competitions like the Tour de France like Lance Armstrong and the Olympics like Marion Jones and her husband, and they never failed a drug test,” he says.

“But they were using engineered pharmaceuticals to get to performance. That was not my case. I was a kid trying to finish a college assignment and trying to graduate – with a testimonial of my professors and the exact dates and everything. So I felt that was a harsh punishment.”

Shattering a stigma

Mellouli managed to put it all behind him and never looked back. He made further history in London four years later, courtesy of his exploits in the pool and in open water. He won 1,500 bronze in the pool on August 4, 2012 then topped the 10km podium at the Serpentine six days later. The transition between both disciplines seemed seamless but Mellouli assures that was far from being the case.

“There’s a lot, more than you can imagine, that goes into that transition. And I’m very honoured and very proud to say that I’m the first swimmer to ever do it,” he declares.

“I think it opened the door for other swimmers to see it as a challenge, especially on the men’s side. On the women’s side, I’d still like to see [Katie] Ledecky try it. On the male side, obviously now you see a lot of swimmers trying to follow my footsteps and challenge themselves in the way that I challenged myself.”

Mellouli admits he had doubts before attempting that pool-open water double, especially that he witnessed the great Grant Hackett fail to qualify for the 10km four years earlier in Beijing.

“There was this stigma that pool swimmers cannot make it in open water and I saw that as a cool challenge. I saw that and was like, ‘Okay, not a lot of people think this can be done’. So I thought it was awesome to challenge that perception,” he said.

As Tokyo beckons, Mellouli now has one last challenge ahead of him. It’s hard to imagine why anyone would bet against him.