Today I Discovered Eric The Eel, Your New Favourite Athlete

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The Olympics are internationally-renowned for the stories of triumph, overcoming the odds and incredible athletic feats. The story of Eric the Eel is definitely a story of triumph and overcoming the odds - though incredible athletic feat? That's questionable.

Yet, his win at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 remains one of the greatest Olympic stories of all time.

Not so much discovered as 'rediscovered' in my Olympic excitement this week, the story of Eric Moussambani is as uplifting as it is miraculous. Eric, a competitor from Equatorial Guinea, took to the pool at the Sydney Olympic games after winning a wild card spot for developing nations.

In the lead up to the games, Eric used to train in a hotel building whose pool measured only 13 metres, a far cry from the 100 he would eventually need to swim at Sydney 2000. In between the three hours he'd get at the hotel, he also used to train in the river and at the beach - where fisherman basically explained to him how not to sink.

He arrived at the Olympic Games in Sydney and started to learn how to swim. After arriving.

When his heat finally rolled around, he had to face two other competitors in his heat - Karim Bare of Niger and Farkhod Oripov of Tajikistan. The two other competitors jumped onto the starting block, side by side with Moussambani, and limbered up for the water sprint they were about to endure.

The starter readied the three men to jump, letting out their standard "take your marks" and...

Eric's two rivals jumped the gun. Eric teetered on the edge of his starting block.

A little confused, a little nervous.

But he never jumped in.

Bare and Oripov were disqualified for the false start, which meant, in lane five, all alone, Eric Moussambani would swim this heat.

He lined up again, the crowd rose, cheered, clapped, hollered. They didn't know what to expect, they couldn't.

They all existed in a time before Eric the Eel. A time where Olympic swimmers were doing the 100m in less than 50 seconds. A time where the giants, Ian Thorpe and Pieter van den Hoogenband, clashed in the pool.

The crowd didn't know what was about to happen.

Then, after the characteristic muffled beep of the swimming pool filled the arena, Eric jumped in.

No, he charged in. He only learnt how to properly dive into a pool days before.

By the time the race was over he'd set a new world record.

The slowest time in the 100m Freestyle ever, at almost two minutes it was double that of the current Olympic champion.

'Eric the Eel' was born.

Remarkably, with no competitors, he also won the heat. At the same time, he brought the entire country - a swimming-mad nation in the throes of Thorpe Fever - to tears.

Of course, the story of competitors not quite living up to the Olympic standard traces back through a number of Olympic events. Notoriously, 'Eddie the Eagle' took to the ski jumping event at the 1988 Winter Olympic games, failing spectacularly but - perhaps more than anyone else - embodying what the Olympics are all about.

Having a bloody red hot go.

On ya, legends.


Today I Discovered is a daily dose of facts for Lifehacker readers - the weird, wonderful and sometimes worrying. This week we're pulling out some of the Winter Olympics most bizarre stories. Let us know if you discovered anything that blew your mind in the comments!


Comments

    Oh, there is so much more to Eric's story. Just for starters, his "effort" was replicated by a countrymate at Sydney (the only other Equatorial Guinea swimmer) who swam the womens 50m freestyle in 1:03.

    Then theres the visa bungle that stopped him competing at the 2004 games, by which point he'd lowered his PB to 57 seconds. Still slow, but an amazing achievement given the lack of resources.

    Add in that he's been the Equatorial Guinea swimming coach since 2012, and I believe successfully campaigned for an actual 50m pool in the country, and his story just gets better as time went on. While he will most likely be remembered for that one swim, he's done so much more for swimming in Africa than most people realise.

    Which makes him just as important to the sport as the legends like Thorpe.

    Sadly the IOC has since changed some qualifying rules to make it basically impossible for athletes like this to compete now. As in, the opposite of what the Olympic Games was meant to represent.

      Yeah, read that a couple of years back. There are still a few loopholes that can be exploited to get the lesser known countries in, but they're tighter than ever.

      Just before the Rio Olympics for example, there was an Oceania Games held (I think) in PNG. Might have just been swimming, I didn't pay THAT much attention. Long story short, winners of the various events qualified for the Olympics as regional champions, but basically only if Australia and NZ sent athletes as well.

      So Aus and NZ did, only their "teams" consisted of B level athletes on a similar level to the rest of Oceania, so they weren't just taking spots they'd already qualified for. End result was that a lot of Pacific Nation athletes got to compete at the Olympics, and get to experience The Dream.

      I thought it was an incredibly nice decision of both Australia and New Zealand to accommodate them the way they did, and not just bully as the big fish in the small pond.

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