TOKYO ( Associated Press) – No one was watching Ahmed Hafnoui in the eighth lane of the Olympic pool.
At last all eyes were on the Tunisian teenager.
Hafnoi was the grand winner of the 400m freestyle at the Tokyo Games on Sunday, clearing the field of faster and older swimmers. The 18-year-old finished his victory in 3 minutes, 43.26 seconds with a loud shout echoing in the mostly empty 15,000-seat arena.
“I believe that when I touched the wall and I first saw myself,” he said. “I was so surprised.”
Australia’s Jack McLaughlin took silver and American Kieran Smith took bronze. The top three were separated by less than a second after an eight-lap race.
“When I hit the water, I was just thinking about the medals, not the timing,” Hafnoui said.
He reached the final by 14-hundredths of a second, landing him in the far lane. Without the ability to track Hafnoui during the race, the fastest qualifiers were in the middle of the pool.
Asked what he knew about Halfnoi, Smith said, “Absolutely nothing.”
Hafnoui made sure he would be remembered with a performance that boosted his resume considerably.
He joined Ouse Melouli as the only Tunisian to win a gold in swimming. Meloli won the 1,500 freestyle at the 2008 Beijing Games, one of three Olympic medals of his career. Before the race, he reached the girl with a congratulatory message.
“I want to be like him one day,” Hafnoui said.
The teenager, who trained in the Tunis capital, is the fourth Olympic gold medalist from North Africa in the country. He is the second youngest athlete from an African nation to win a swimming gold; Joan Harrison of South Africa was 16 when she won 100 backstrokes at the 1952 Helsinki Games.
Standing on the podium, his coach pumped his arms for victory in the stands, the moment was overwhelming for Hafnoui.
“I was in tears because when I see my country’s flag and hear the anthem in the background, it was great,” he said. “I am very proud of it. I dedicate this to all Tunisians.”
Hafnoi began swimming at the age of 6 when his father enrolled him in a swimming club. His limited international experience includes finishing eighth in the 400 free at the 2018 Youth Olympics.
“The best people are the ones who can swim their best time at the Olympic Games,” McLaughlin said.
Halfnoi has another chance to make a surprise when she competes in the 800 free on Thursday. Next year, he said he plans to attend college in the US.
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