Eric Moussambani had never been in an Olympic-size pool when he arrived in Australia for the 2000 Sydney Games, his first time outside of Equatorial Guinea.
Imagine his thoughts, then, after the other two swimmers in his 100m freestyle first-round heat false-started, leaving Moussambani to swim alone. To swim farther than he ever had before. And to do it in front of thousands of people at the Sydney Aquatic Centre.
Moussambani, who had trained for three months in a hotel pool no bigger than 20 meters, struggled to complete the distance. So much that people near the pool reportedly contemplated diving in to rescue him in the final meters. The crowd, noticing an Olympic moment, roared in support.
He eventually touched the wall in 1:52.72, the slowest time in Olympic history and more than 50 seconds behind the slowest swimmer of the rest of the heats.
Moussambani became a media sensation. He was given a nickname: Eric the Eel, reminiscent of Eddie the Eagle, the British ski jumper who finished last at the 1988 Calgary Winter Games.
“I didn’t know how to speak English back then. People were saying I was a star,” Moussambani said in 2012, according to CNN. “But I didn’t know what to do. A lot of people were making fun of me, others were congratulating me.”
Moussambani made it to the Olympics under universality rules allowing small nations that didn’t qualify any swimmers by time to still enter an athlete. Those universality rules have since been amended, requiring swimmers to compete in the prior year’s world championships to be eligible for the Olympics.
Moussambani went on to lower his personal best to 57 seconds. He hoped to compete in the 2004 Athens Games, but a passport issue reportedly kept him out. Moussambani later became a swim coach, though Equatorial Guinea hasn’t entered any swimmers at the Olympics since Sydney.
A pair of Olympic-size pools would be built in Equatorial Guinea, a West African nation the size of Massachusetts (but with one-fifth the population).
“Before, nobody knew me and now everyone does,” Moussambani reportedly said in 2000. “So this is good for me and my people.”
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