Olympian Ous Mellouli of Tunisia was training this morning with English Channel record holder Trent Grimsey and other world champions like 10 km and 25 km world champion Valerio Cleri and 5 km team pursuit gold medalist Ashley Twichell at the Clube de Regatas do Flamengo pool in Rio de Janeiro.
On the pool deck at one of Brazil’s richest fútbol clubs and the second most valuable club in South America, Mellouli talked about performing under pressure at the Olympic Games. “London was my fourth Olympics. The first one in Sydney didn’t start off well. I finished 43rd out of 45 swimmers in the 400 individual medley. I went out fast, setting a Tunisian record in the butterfly for the 100 meters…but it didn’t end well,” recalled the Tunisian 3-time Olympic medalist.
But in Beijing and London, Mellouli came through like a champion.
“London was great, but I was facing the biggest pressure [of my life]. When I did not perform well in Shanghai [at the 2011 World Swimming Championships] and I was dealing with my injuries and not training well, I was taking a lot of heat,” recalled Mellouli. “People back home [in Tunisia] and the media kept asking me how thing are going and had tied me with the former regime. They said I was going to marry the president’s daughter. There was all kinds of pressure.”
Mellouli, a graduate of the University of Southern California, lives in Los Angeles, California, but as he says, “My body is in L.A., but my heart and soul are back home.” So the external pressures and expectations of his fellow countrymen, politicians and media were tremendous, especially for the only returning Olympic gold medalist and, in fact, throughout the entire Middle East.
Similar to Pelé in fútbol and Michael Jordan in basketball, Mellouli is clutch. He performs best at the highest stages. But his road to success in London, where he won a bronze medal in the 1500m freestyle and a gold medal in the Olympic 10K Marathon Swim was filled with risk and uncertainty. Yet he rose to the occasion by facing the risks head-on and transforming uncertainty through radical decisions made without regrets.
“I did a complete 180 in my training and left Los Angeles in April [four months before the London Olympics]. I took a huge gamble and headed off in a completely different direction. I trained at altitude in Flagstaff, Arizona for a month, then went to Portugal in order to qualify for the Olympic 10K. then I went back to Flagstaff, then Denmark and finally to Croatia. A week before leaving to the Olympics, I headed back to Los Angeles because my shoulder was still hurting me and I had to see a specialist.
[The shoulder] felt a little bit better, but when I got to London, I decided to scratch [my first event] the 400m freestyle. It turned out to be a great decision. Because of the press, there was a lot of pressure. If I did not perform well, the press and the people back home would have been very disappointed.
My next event was the 1500m, but even the day before the race, I did a set of 10 x 50 @ :45 easy-hard. But I was only able to hold 30s on the fast 50s even going pedal to the medal. I figured that I would be lucky to even break 15 minutes.”
But in his stereotypical fashion, Mellouli turned things around within 24 hours by remaining humble and living in the moment. “[Before the start of the race] I just tell myself that I am grateful to be here [at the Olympics]. Anything that I comes now [in his fourth Olympics} is a plus. I want to shine and I want to be clutch.”
During the preliminary heat, Mellouli swam a 14:47. “I felt like I was cruising. I was great.” Then came the Olympic final where he earned a bronze with a blazing fast 14:40. “It was my fastest time ever in a jammer – and I did it at the age of 28. It was great and gave me confidence for the 10K marathon swim.”
With five days between the 1500m finals and the Olympic 10K, there was plenty of time to recover and prepare, but Mellouli was thrown for another loop when he caught a fever and was bed-ridden with a virus. “I took antibiotics to try to control the symptoms and decrease the fever. I had to keep my appetite up, but I was not sure I could even swim a few days before the 10K. This is why when I got out of the 10K, I told the press that this was a miracle. Because it was.”
Mellouli explains his mindset as he stood on the standing pontoon, facing the pressures of his country and the media while surrounded by 24 of the best marathon swimmers in the world. “I am here to give it my best shot. Whatever happens, happens. I swim and live in the moment. You have to tell yourself, I don’t care. I am here to have fun and will give it my best shot.”
And that he did, swimming in the moment. “I did what I needed to do. I was aware of who was on my left and who was on my right. I knew where [Thomas] Lurz was and where Spyros [Gianniotis] was. I knew where the buoys were on my left and what was on my right.” His awareness of the course, situation and competitors was extremely helpful in determining his pace and positioning. But the quick study from Tunisia did not always possess this racing savvy and knowledge.
“In my first 10K race [at the FINA World Cup race] in Cancun, I made all the mistakes possible. It was a great learning experience. Every mistake, I did. I was leading, but in the final 800m, I got bombed. All the top guys were there and I got 11th. I told myself that I cannot let this happen again. I want to give it my best and came back much better in Portugal [in his second 10K where he qualified for the Olympic 10K final].”
Mellouli greatly utilized that experience and his mindset to win his second gold medal in the 10K in the Serpentine. The crowd at Hyde Park was treated to an outstanding race where Mellouli controlled the race, largely from the front. With less than 3000m to go, Mellouli took off to win in 1:49:55. His memories remain golden.
“London was cool. Those Olympics were the best. The overall energy of the crowds and everyone was so welcoming to us. People say Sydney was great, but [for me] London was great.”
Now in the afterglow of his Olympic success, the triple-medalist Mellouli remains the humble and grateful individual that he is climbs on the starting blocks. Walking along Copacabana Beach and on the pool deck of the Clube de Regatas do Flamengo, he spends time with young swimmers and adults who come up to him for photographs or autographs.
“I am here to give it my best shot.”
Great words to live by.
Copyright © 2012 by World Open Water Swimming Association