Nobody saw this coming. Nobody cared to watch the Tunisian teenager in lane eight of the Olympic pool. However, the 18-year-old swimmer, Ahmed Hafnaoui had every eye on him at the finish.
He was the stunning winner of the 400-meter freestyle at the Tokyo Games on Sunday, beating a field of faster-qualifying and older swimmers. The 18-year-old finished in 3 minutes, 43.26 seconds, punctuating his victory with loud yelling that echoed in the mostly empty 15,000-seat arena.
“I believe when I touched the wall and I saw myself first,” he said. “I was so surprised.”
Australia’s Jack McLoughlin won silver while American Kieran Smith took bronze. Less than a second separated the top three after the eight-lap race.
“When I hit the water, I was just thinking about the medal, not the time,” Hafnaoui said.
He squeaked into the final by 14-hundredths of a second, landing him in the far outside lane. The fastest qualifiers were in the middle of the pool, without the ability to track Hafnaoui during the race.
Asked what he knew about Hafnaoui, Smith said, “Absolutely nothing.”
Hafnaoui will now however be remembered after such a giant-slaying performance.
He became only the second Tunisian after Ous Mellouli to win a gold in swimming. Interesting, the 1,500 freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Games, Mellouli reached out to the teenager with a good-luck message before the race.
“I wish to be like him one day,” Hafnaoui said.
The teen who trains in the capital of Tunis is the North African country’s fourth Olympic gold medalist, and the second-youngest athlete from Africa to win a swimming gold. Joan Harrison of South Africa had been16 when she won the 100 backstrokes at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
“I was in tears because when I see the flag of my country and I hear the anthem in the background, it was great,” he said. “I’m so proud of it. I dedicate it to all the Tunisian people.”
Hafnaoui began swimming at age 6 when his father enrolled him in a swim club. Excluding an eighth-place finish in the 400 free at the 2018 Youth Olympics, he has limited international experience. However, he wouldn’t let that stop him.
“The best people are the ones who can come up and swim their best times at the Olympic Games,” McLoughlin said.
Hafnaoui has another chance to pull off a surprise when he competes in the 800 free on Thursday. Next year, he said he plans to attend college in the U.S.