When Eric Moussambani first hit the water at the Sydney 2000 Olympics, few fans would have heard his name before – or knew they were about to witness history.
One minute and 52.72 seconds later, he was a hero around the world, a cult figure who remains beloved among Olympic fans to this day.
Eric the Eel, the man who failed so gloriously in the 100m freestyle in front of 17,500 screaming fans at Sydney’s Olympic Park Aquatic Centre, became a global sensation.
Almost two minutes – more than double the gold medal time of 48.30 set by Netherlands’ Pieter van den Hoogenband.
Moussambani’s was the slowest time in Olympic history, swam by a man who could barely stay afloat in the final metres, perhaps buoyed only by cheers of the raucous crowd and viewers around the globe.
He swam alone – and seemingly terrified – in lane five, Nigeria’s Karim Bare and Tajikistan’s Farkhod Oripov having both been disqualified for leaping off the blocks a fraction early.
Now, he’s opened up on that incredible moment – and everything that happened afterwards – to The Sydney Morning Herald.
“In that last 50 metres, to be honest, I was so tired I was going to stop,” Moussambani said. “I couldn’t feel my legs or arms, everything was very heavy. When I had people clapping and cheering my name, that gave me more power to finish.
“After the race I went to the changing room and I laid down because I still couldn’t feel my body. I went back to my apartment in the Olympic village and I slept from 11am to 4pm. When I woke up, on the television I could see my pictures. I thought I did something wrong.
“When I went to the Olympic restaurant where the athletes eat, that’s when people started asking me for autographs and pictures. That’s when I realised I became very famous.
“That was a big experience for me because I used to be a very shy guy. People started to look for me in the village.”
Soon he was swamped with fame. He swam at Bondi, climbed the Harbour Bridge, and signed one hell of a lot of autographs.
But what few people know is that, having taken the world by storm, Eric the Eel didn’t stop swimming. The opposite was true – he became a genuine, competitive, athlete.
By 2004, his personal best time was almost a full minute less – 56.9 seconds. But he was robbed of a chance to show the world his remarkable improvement at the Athens Olympics due to a passport issue.
He kept improving. And two years later, he says, he notched a genuinely outstanding swim at an invitational event.
“They invited me to Dusseldorf in Germany in 2006 for a show. I had to swim 100 metres with others swimmers and I did it in 52.18,” Moussambani told the Herald. “That was my best time. I didn’t go any better.”
To put it into context, that time would have earned gold in the 100m freestyle at every Olympic Games up to 1968, when Aussie Mike Wenden posted a world-record time of 52.2.
It’s an almost unbelievable contrast to his iconic Sydney swim.
Then again, he had only taken up swimming nine months before the Olympics, starting out in a 20-metre hotel pool. At that time, there were no Olympic-size pools in his home country of Equatorial Guinea, forcing him to train in rivers and beaches.
It was almost miraculous that he had even made it to Sydney – as the story goes, he heard a radio advertisement for spots on the Olympic swimming team, granted to minnow countries under an Olympic development program.
Moussambani was the only person who tried out.
Two decades on from reaching the highest of highs – becoming an Olympic legend – he’s still as passionate as ever about swimming.
These days, he’s the national coach of Equatorial Guinea’s swim team. The country now boasts two Olympic standard pools.
“When I was preparing for the Sydney Olympics I didn’t have a swimming pool. I was swimming in the beach or the river. Our swimmers have an opportunity to swim in a pool now, so when they go to an Olympic Games they won’t be scared like I was.”
His ultimate goal? Helping his country to win an Olympic medal in swimming.
“I’m trying to do my best for my swimmers. It’s a lot of work to do,” he said.
“If we have two or three swimmers, there is not enough chance we will win a medal in the Olympic Games. When it comes to African Games, yes, we have a chance. For Olympic Games, if we have 12 good swimmers, we may have an opportunity to win a medal.”
Moussambani hopes his country will send four swimmers to the delayed Tokyo Olympics in 2021.
They will be hard-pressed to match the joy and the brilliance of Eric the Eel’s famous one minute, 52.72 seconds.