To bring the Olympic spirit to developing nations in the late 1990s, the Olympic Committee allowed a small number of “wild card” athletes to join the Games. But because they didn’t have to go through any qualifying rounds to compete, not all of the contenders arrived prepared. One such athlete was a swimmer from Equatorial Guinea named Eric Moussambani. When Moussambani arrived at the 2000 Sydney Games, he’d only been training for the 100-meter freestyle for about eight months. He’d also never been in an Olympic-size pool and had never raced more than 50 meters. Regardless, he was determined to represent his country.
The three wild-card qualifiers were given their own heat, and Moussambani took to the blocks next to swimmers from Niger and Tajikistan. When the official called the swimmers to their marks, both of Moussambani’s competitors were disqualified for false starts. Left to swim the heat by himself, Eric dove in and dog paddled, gasping for air and flailing his arms and legs. Halfway through the race, the situation looked so dire that commentators worried he was drowning.
When Moussambani eventually stalled out 10 meters from the end of the race, the crowd rallied behind him as he inched toward the finish. As he finally pulled himself from the water, the applause thundered. His final time was 1:52.72—more than twice that of swimmers in the previous heat. But Moussambani couldn’t have been happier. Ecstatic to have finished his first 100-meter race, he told reporters, “I’m going to jump and dance all night long in celebration of my personal triumph.”
Moussambani’s pluck and perseverance made him an Olympic celebrity, and his newfound fans dubbed him “Eric the Eel.” He kept training for the 2004 Games and even got his time down to a respectable 57 seconds. Unfortunately, a visa snafu kept him from competing again.
You can watch his memorable Olympic moment (and 52 seconds) here.