Tunisian teen wins surprise Olympic swimming gold medal


Tokyo — No one was watching Ahmed Hafnaui in Lane 8 of the Olympic Pool.

At the finish, all eyes were on Tunisian teenagers.

Hafnaui was a stunning 400-meter freestyle winner at the Tokyo Olympics on Sunday, beating the field of faster and older swimmers. The 18-year-old boy finished in 3:43.26 seconds and won a loud victory in an almost empty 15,000-seat arena.

Tunisia's Ahmed Hafnaui swims
Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaui will swim in the men’s 400-meter freestyle final at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo on July 25, 2021. (Martin Meissner / AP)

“I believe when I touch the wall and see myself for the first time,” he said. “I was very surprised.”

Australia’s Jack McLoughlin won silver and America’s Keylance Miss won bronze. The top three were separated within one second after the eight-lap race.

“When I hit the water, I was thinking about medals, not time,” Hafnaui said.

He made it to the final in 1/1400 seconds and landed in the far outer lane. The fastest qualifying was in the middle of the pool and we couldn’t track Hafnaui during the race.

When asked what he knew about Hafnaui, Smith replied, “Nothing at all.”

Tunisia's Ahmed Hafnaui celebrates
Tunisia’s Ahmed Hafnaui celebrates after winning the men’s 400-meter freestyle final at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo on July 25, 2021. (Charlie Riedel / AP)

Hafnaoui confirmed that he was memorable with a performance that greatly boosted his resume.

He joined Oussama Mellouli as the only Tunisian to win a gold medal in swimming. Mellouli won 1,500 freestyles, one of three Olympic medals, at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. He contacted the teenager with a lucky message before the race.

“I want to be like him someday,” Hafnaui said.

A teenager training in the capital of Tunis is the fourth Olympic gold medalist in a North African country. He is the second youngest athlete to win a gold medal in swimming in African countries. Joan Harrison of South Africa was 16 years old when he won 100 backstrokes at the 1952 Helsinki Games.

His coach, who stood on the podium, pumped his arms violently on the stand, a moment overwhelming for Huffnaui.

“When I saw the flag of my country and heard the national anthem in the background, it was so wonderful that I shed tears,” he said. “I am very proud of it. I dedicate it to all Tunisian people.”

Hafnaoui started swimming at the age of six when his father registered him with a swimming club. His limited international experience includes finishing 8th in the 400 Free at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games.

“The best people are the ones who can spend the best time swimming at the Olympics,” McLaughlin said.

Hafnaoui has another chance to be surprised when competing for 800 free on Thursday. Next year he said he was going to college in the United States.

Beth Harris