Mellouli wants medal in last shot

Swimmer Oussama Mellouli hopes to inspire Tunisian youth to dream big and work hard.
Swimmer Oussama Mellouli hopes to inspire Tunisian youth to dream big and work hard. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

TUNIS • Tunisia's most decorated sportsman Oussama Mellouli will go for his fifth Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, at the end of a roller-coaster swimming career of gold medals and a drug ban.

A two-time gold medallist and the first African man to win an Olympic swimming gold, the 32-year-old said he is "calm" and "optimistic" that he can win one last medal.

"With the Olympics, I'm going to something I know well. For the young ones, it will be different," he said.

"Eat, swim, sleep, repeat - that's the rhythm of an athlete. You shouldn't think of anything but that."

After competing in Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, Mellouli won the 1,500 metres freestyle title at the 2008 Beijing Games.

He made African history just three months after returning from an 18-month ban after testing positive for a stimulant in late 2006.

Mellouli said it was a substance to help stay awake while studying. He lost two world titles because of the penalty.

Four years later at the London Olympics, he snatched a bronze in the 1,500m and despite a virus that left him vomiting in his hotel room just days before the 10km swimming marathon, he headed to the Serpentine Lake in Hyde Park determined to compete.

Under the blazing sun, he beat Germany's Thomas Lurz to gold in 1hr 49min 55.1sec.

That made him the first swimmer to win Olympic golds in both pool and open water competitions.

"Ninety-nine per cent of athletes are dreamers," he said. "From the moment the dream is in our spirit, we strive for it. For me, it's been like that since I was 16."

Despite his previous victories, he has not yet decided whether to compete in the pool or just focus on the marathon - just the third in the history of the Games.

"The 1,500 metres is three days before the 10 kilometres. Competing could affect my freshness," he said.

Mellouli has mostly trained in California for the last 15 years, but keeps strong ties to Tunisia.

As at in China in 2008, he will carry the Tunisian flag at the opening ceremony. And when the Games are over, he has ideas for Tunisian sport.

He wants to instill in youth the idea that "if you dream big and you work hard, you can get there".

"Some people say that that's an American or a French slogan, it's not for us in Tunisia," he said.

"But for me, I think Tunisians can do extraordinary things."


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 19, 2016, with the headline 'Mellouli wants medal in last shot'. Print Edition | Subscribe