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.”
On the 15th anniversary of the Opening Ceremony of the Sydney Olympics, here are 15 chronological memories:
Sept. 15 — Cathy Freeman lights Olympic cauldron
The cauldron lighting proved one of the most poignant in Olympic history, with World 400m champion Cathy Freeman being handed the torch after a final relay in the stadium with all female torchbearers, marking 100 years of women’s participation at the Olympics.
The choice of Freeman was also noteworthy as she’s Aboriginal. She was recently reunited with the suit she wore on Sept. 15, 2000, after it disappeared from her dressing room after she took it off later that night.
Sept. 16 — Australians smash the Americans like guitars in 4x100m relay
Perhaps the most anticipated U.S.-Australia showdown came on the first night of medal competition in the men’s 4x100m freestyle relay.
Before the Olympics, outspoken U.S. swimmer Gary Hall Jr. wrote, “We will smash them like guitars,” in an otherwise complimentary piece about Australia and its swimmers.
Hall would anchor the U.S. in the relay, which it had never lost at the Olympics (excluding the boycotted Moscow 1980 Games). He would face Australia’s new superstar, the 17-year-old Ian Thorpe, who earlier that night won the 400m free in world-record time.
Hall outsplit Thorpe on the anchor leg, but Thorpe held on for the win, sending the Sydney Aquatic Centre into a frenzy. Most memorably, bald Michael Klim, who broke the 100m free world record leading off, led an Aussie air guitar strum session after Thorpe touched the wall.
Sept. 18-19 — Michael Phelps’ Olympic debut
It barely made headlines at the time, but the 15-year-old who finished fifth in the 200m butterfly in his first Olympic event would eventually become the most decorated Olympian of all time.
Michael Phelps became the youngest U.S. Olympic swimmer since 1932 in Sydney and showed his youth by taking the wrong athlete credential to the pool and forgetting to tie his swimsuit strings before his first race. But the talent was evident.
“Boy, this guy’s going to be great one day,” NBC Olympics analyst Rowdy Gaines said on the broadcast.
Equatorial Guinea’s Eric Moussambani captivated the Sydney Aquatic Centre as he swam alone in the first heat of the 100m freestyle. Moussambani struggled to complete the distance, eventually touching the wall in 1:52.72, the slowest time in Olympic history.
Eric the Eel received thunderous applause from the crowd recognizing the Olympic value of not the triumph, but the struggle. Not to conquer, but to take part.
Sept. 20 — Misty upsets Madame Butterfly
The U.S. bettered Australia in the women’s 200m butterfly, when Misty Hyman stunned heavy gold-medal favorite Susie O’Neill. O’Neill, nicknamed “Madame Butterfly,” entered the race as the reigning Olympic and World champion and the world-record holder. So beloved in Australia, the butterfly was referred to as “the Susie stroke.”
Hyman, in her only career Olympic race, summoned an Olympic and American record swim that was .07 off O’Neill’s world record. O’Neill claimed silver, seven tenths of a second behind.
Sept. 21 — Controversial women’s all-around final
It’s a night many gymnastics fans choose not to remember. The women’s all-around final was won by Andreea Raducan in a Romanian podium sweep, which could have been historic.
However, Raducan was stripped of the crown later in the Sydney Games after testing positive for a banned substance from cold-medicine pills given to her by a team doctor. The blame fell on the doctor, and the women who were upgraded in the final medal standings all reportedly said Raducan was the deserving winner.
Also, during the all-around final, it was discovered the vault was set too low. It had to be reset, and all gymnasts who had competed on the faulty apparatus were given the option of re-doing their vaults. Russian Svetlana Khorkina, who had the highest all-around score in qualifying, fell on the mis-measured vault and then again on her trademark apparatus, uneven bars. She chose not to re-do her vault. It wouldn’t have mattered. She finished 10th.
Sept. 22-30 — The drive for five
Marion Jones was the biggest American star of the Games, though she would be stripped of all five of her medals, including golds in the 100m, 200m and 4x400m relay, after a 2007 admission that she used performance-enhancing drugs leading up to Sydney.
Sept. 24 — Laura Wilkinson goes from eighth to gold
Only one non-Chinese won an individual diving title in Sydney. The shocking effort came from Texan Laura Wilkinson.
Wilkinson jumped from eighth place over five final-round dives to become the first U.S. woman in 36 years to take platform gold. She prevailed six months after breaking three middle bones in her right foot, banging it on a piece of plywood used for training. The U.S. would go 12 years before winning another Olympic diving medal.
Sept. 25 — Dunk de la mort
The U.S. men’s basketball team looked human at times during the Games, beating Lithuania by two points in the semifinals and France by 10 in the final. But not Vince Carter in one highlight.
Carter, nicknamed “Half-Man, Half-Amazing,” posterized 7-foot, 2-inch Frederic Weis in a preliminary-round game against the French with a slam that became known as “Dunk de la mort” (Dunk of Death). Weis had been drafted in the first round by the New York Knicks in 1999 but never played in the NBA.
Sept. 25 — U.S. softball completes comeback
The Americans came to Sydney riding a 110-game winning streak, but that was snapped by Japan in group play. The next day, the U.S. lost to China. The day after that, the U.S. lost to Australia.
Pitcher Lisa Fernandez led the team in a cleansing, jumping in the shower together with their uniforms on, in hopes of breaking the curse. It worked. The U.S. won its next five games, including beating China, Australia and Japan in the medal round to repeat as Olympic champion.
Sept. 25 — Magic Monday
The Olympic cauldron lighter Freeman captured 400m gold in front of a reported more than 110,000 spectators at Stadium Australia as part of perhaps the greatest single day of competition in one sport in Olympic history. Magic Monday, they called it.
Also that night, Michael Johnson won his final individual Olympic race (men’s 400m), Stacy Dragila won the first Olympic women’s pole vault, British world-record holder Jonathan Edwards won his first gold medal in his fourth Olympics and Ethiopian Haile Gebrselassie beat Kenyan rival Paul Tergat by .09 of a second in a furious final sprint in the 10,000m.
Maybe the biggest gold-medal favorite going into the Olympics was Greco-Roman super-heavyweight wrestler Aleksandr Karelin, who had not lost a match in 13 years and not been scored upon in six.
The chiseled Russian made it to the Sydney final, seeking his fourth straight Olympic gold medal. There, he would be beaten 1-0 by Wyoming farm boy Rulon Gardner, who celebrated by doing a cartwheel and somersault on the mat.
Sept. 27 — Miracle on Grass
The most famous name on the U.S. baseball team of major-league castoffs and minor-league prospects was its manager, Tommy Lasorda.
In the gold-medal game, the Americans shocked Cuba, which had won all 18 of its games en route to gold medals in the first two Olympic baseball tournaments in 1992 and 1996. Ben Sheets pitched a three-hit shutout in a 4-0 victory.
In a thrilling gold-medal game, Norway upset the reigning Olympic and World Cup champion U.S. 3-2 with a sudden-death goal in the 102nd minute after the Americans had forced extra time with a stoppage-time score. It’s the only Olympic loss for the U.S. women’s soccer team in five tournaments.
Norway’s Dagny Mellgren scored the winner after a ricocheted ball hit her left arm, causing some to say it merited a handball call.
Oct. 1 — ‘Best Olympic Games ever’
The Closing Ceremony included Greg Norman hitting soft golf balls into the crowd, Paul Hogan as Crocodile Dundee, the Bananas in Pajamas and Elle Macpherson walking a runway on a float resembling a camera.