Unlikely Sporting Heroes: "Eric the Eel"
Eric "the Eel" Moussambani, b. 1978-05-31 (happy birthday on the day of this writing!), is an Olympic swimmer from Equatorial Guinea who competed in the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney. For many people watching the Sydney Games this was the first time they'd heard of that country outside of a geography lecture. His appearance in the 100 meters freestyle was definitely the first time they'd ever heard of Eric Moussambani.
The IOC had decided that the Games' audience should be expanded to include minor countries with little to no Olympic tradition. They gave wildcards to some of these nations, who sent their finest competitors. One of them was Eric Moussambani, a swimmer from a patch of land in Atlantic Africa known only to oil executives and Really Intrepid Explorers. He was put on the program and given his Olympic baptism in a preliminary heat in the standard olympic-size swimming pool, which was about 2.5 times the length of anything he'd seen before.
His fellow wildcard competitors in the heat, two gents from Niger and Tajikistan, managed to disqualify themselves with false starts, leaving Eric
up shialone in the pool with 100 meters to go for glory, though a place in the semi-final round looked rather unlikely. It was to be the longest swim of his eight-month old career as a swimmer. That must have looked like a whole lot of water in front of him. It wasn't long before people were questioning whether he'd make it at all.
Eric was clearly tiring by the time he reached the 50-meter mark and somehow managed to get the turn right enough to avoid disqualification. His style turned from just sloppy to truly erratic as he struggled to make it through the second half of the solo race. He finally made it in 1:52.72, taking eight seconds longer than the winner of the 200-meter race the day before. The Sydney crowd were pretty much scratching their heads but their reaction eventually turned from jeers to cheers as Eric valiantly splashed his way towards a personal best (and national record). His reward was a standing ovation, a Speedo sponsorship, a catchy nickname from a Times columnist, and a permanent place in Olympic lore. Right next to Johnny Weissmuller, Jesse Owens, and Eddie the Eagle.
Eric the Eel brought his time down to around 57 seconds training in Spain (of which Equatorial Guinea is a former colony) with the intent to be a bona fide competitor in the 2004 Games. Unfortunately the Equatorial Guinean foreign ministry and the local Olympic Committee (such as it may be) were out of paper clips and no bureaucrat could be found in Malabo to attach his passport photo to his accreditation paper. Or something similar. By the time they found one (paper clip or bureaucrat, we're not sure), his photo had gone missing. For real. He was broke, disheartened, and sorely missed in Athens. Maybe you'll see him in 2008. Probably not. Treasure the memory anyway.