Marathon Swimming (M): Oussama Mellouli (TUN), first winner ever in the pool and in open water!

London 2012 Swimming

Oussama Mellouli of Tunisia won the Olympic Swim Marathon 10km today in Serpentine Lake at London's Hyde Park. Mellouli won the first and only gold medal for his country at the 2012 London Olympic Games. He finished the race is 1:49.55.1, more than 3 seconds ahead of Thomas Lurz of Germany, the most decorated open water swimmer in the race. Richard Weinberger of Canada finished 5.2 seconds behind the Tunisian to earn third place.

Mellouli is the first swimmer to win a medal in both the pool and the open water swimming events in the same Olympic Games and is also the first athlete to have won a gold medal in both the pool and open water events. In the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, Mellouli won the gold medal in the 1500m freestyle. He competed in this event in London, swimming one half a second faster than he did four years ago, this time for a bronze medal. 

Mellouli was in second place after the first lap, but found a comfortable position in 6th among the pack for the second lap which was the slowest of the race. He let Andreas Waschburger (GER) lead the group for the next two laps while he, Lurz and Weinberger were all within a metre of the German pacesetter. Just into the 5th lap, Mellouli took charge of the pace trying to put some distance between himself, Lurz and Weinberger who were drafting off him while in close contact with the Tunisian.

During the 6th and final lap of the race, Mellouli was firmly in control sprinting ahead and sometimes flipping over and swimming backstroke to see who was with him. At one point he was ahead of his closest competitor by 13 seconds. Those with greater open water experience found a way to close the gap in the final 800 metres of the race. Today's race was only the third time the Tunisian swimmer has swum the 10km competitively. His second time was exactly two months ago when he won the qualification race in Setubal, Portugal.

"As a country we've been through a lot in the last couple of years. I hope that every Tunisian will turn on their TV, look at my success, be happy. I hope that this medal brings them some joy and some pride." Mellouli, who trains in the USA graduated from the University of Southern California, and credits former USC coach Mark Schubert, current USC coach Dave Salo and USC's assistant coach and open water specialist Catherine Vogt for his success in the pool. He was also quick to credit several coaches who trained him when he lived in France. 

Mellouli was born in Tunis, but left Tunisia at the age of 15 to study at the College of Rampart in Marseille, France. In 2002, he moved to Los Angeles accepting a college scholarship to compete for the USC Trojans. Mellouli introduced himself on the world swimming scene at the 2003 FINA World Championships in Barcelona, Spain with a bronze-medal performance in the 400m individual medley. Fifteen months later he captured his first world title, and the first for his country winning the 400m individual medley at 2004 FINA World Swimming Championships (25m) in Indianapolis, Indiana. 

At the 2004 Athens Olympic Games he finished 5th in the same event while setting an African record. He bettered that mark with his bronze-medal swim in the 400 IM event at the 2005 FINA World Championships in Montreal, Canada. He also won the bronze-medal in the 400m freestyle at that same event. Mellouli won the 1500m freestyle at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing, China. In doing so, he became the first African male swimmer to ever win an Olympic gold medal in an individual swimming event.

credit: Giorgio Scala 

In his interview minutes after his second medal ceremony of these Olympic Games he beamed with pride: "I don't think this has ever been done before. It was possibly one of the toughest things to do. The 10km just hurts, you're in pain, once you hit a wall, you just keep pushing, when you hit a wall again, you keep pushing." 

The Tunisian explained why he pumped his chest just seconds after the finish: "I'm a pretty solid guy and I never react that way, but I have been struggling with my shoulder, my elbow, and I had a virus. What happened today is a miracle if you believe in miracles. After the 2011 World Championships last summer in Shanghai, I thought I had to change my focus to the 1500m and the 10km. I honestly thought my best chance was in the 10km. To win a medal in the 1500m and also in the 10km is pretty cool." 

During his press conference, Mellouli was asked which event was harder, the 1500m freestyle or the 10km marathon swim: "By far the open water (10km). That was hell. There is no other way to describe it. The last 100m, as I lifted my head to look at the finish line, my shoulder was so heavy, my legs were tight, my lungs were burning, my whole system was in shock for the last five minutes. It's like what a marathon runner goes through but it's even more painful than that. The 10km is probably one of the toughest events in all sports combined."

Mellouli also spoke about the race: "The conditions were definitely to my advantage today. It was not really rough water. It was not that cold, which was something I was really worried about. I come from the Mediterranean and I do not deal well with cold water. Of the three 10km races I've done, this was the easiest. Being a fast pool swimmer definitely gave me an advantage - that is why I chose to do this event. I know my qualities as a swimmer. I knew I had more speed than the rest of the field. I attacked on the sixth lap because I wanted clear water, so I could keep my long stroke and be as efficient as possible."

German swimmer Lurz was determined to improve upon the bronze medal he captured at the 2008 Olympic Games. In the lead up to the 2012 London Olympics, he was coached by his older brother Stefan. Lurz trains full-time with the German military that supports Olympic athletes and is renowned for being a very tough workout swimmer. His track record of success is extraordinarily impressive, built on the strength of his renowned training program with 25 international podium finishes to his name.

Lurz was once a pool swimmer too, he competed for Germany at the 2004 Athens Olympics in the 1500m freestyle, in the same year he was the world champion in the 10km open water swim in 2004 FINA Open Water Swimming Championships in Dubai (UAE). He has won a world title in either the 5km or the 10km every year since including last year's 5km world championships in Shanghai.

The German swimmer follows a carefully designed and tested race plan with the objective of being close to the leaders but happy to let them do the work. The 33-year-old is well known for his focus and precision true to his German roots. "I think I made a smart race because I realised going into the last lap that it was really fast. I saved a lot of power for the silver medal at the end," said the German swimmer. "It was very, very hard. I knew that if I push (to try to catch up to Mellouli) then I would find myself in fourth place." 

He is uncertain if his career will take him to the next Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro. The German reminds us: "I'm not the youngest but with experience you can still reach good results. Rio is in the sea which will be good. But there are many things that I will need to find out. This is a full-time job. You cannot work, you need to train 20km per day. So, sponsors, everything you need to know about it first before making a decision."

Lurz took time to pay tribute to American athlete Fran Crippen (USA) who he was sure would have been in today's race were it not for his unfortunate death in a 10km open water world cup event in Dubai in October 2010: "I think it's very important to remember Fran. I thought about Fran before and during the race. After this tragic accident the sport has changed. Sometimes there are scuba divers under the buoys. It's important to remember him because he was a great athlete and a friendly guy. It was a big loss for the sport."

Canadian Richard Weinberger returned to the Serpentine Lake almost exactly a year following his victory in the test event last August. The 22-year-old Canadian was the winner of the Pan American Games 10km event last October. Like Mellouli, he qualified for the 2012 Olympics in the FINA Marathon Qualifier two months ago in Lisbon. Weinberger led the first two laps of the race, dropped into fourth during the third lap. He was in second after four laps but dropped back into third in the fifth lap.

credit: Giorgio Scala 

Weinberger also gave his impressions: "I've been swimming open water since I was 19. My coach got me into it and I've done three world championships and so this is my fourth big race. I was worried that the other guys would pass me when Mellouli got away. Things were the same as in Portugal at the qualifier and it was pretty hard to catch him once he got away, so I just kept my cool and concentrated. I moved everything along as my coach told me. We wanted to make the race between four people instead of 25 people. We tried to push the pace and then obviously put in a fast spring as you saw at the end. My goals were to be top five and instead I finished third for a bronze medal."

While Weinberger's open water career seems to be a promising one ahead, Tunisia's gold medallist Mellouli was also not sure where his future will take him. "After winning this gold I will definitely think about retiring because I don't think I can top this achievement. I can't do any better than this. It might be a good time to leave the sport with this incredible gold medal. I don't know what I will do. There is no way I can top this achievement today - the first swimmer to win gold medals in both the pool and open water. Only those close to me know how much I struggled to get here today. I struggled for three years with my shoulder and not having the training that I really wanted to. To come out here today and to win against such a hungry field like Thomas (Lurz) and the young Canadian (Richard Weinberger), I have no regrets to leave it all behind and enjoy life."

The men's 10km race was the 34th event on FINA's swimming programme. Mellouli added a gold to his pool bronze, a total of 3 for his country. For Tunisia, three in the Olympc Games, one of each colour following Habiba Ghribi's silver in the women's 300m steeplechase. Canada collects its third medal in swimming. Lurz's silver medal today is the first and only medal for German in swimming.  Like Italy which earned its only medal following Martina Grimaldi's bronze in yesterday's 10km, Germany breathed a sigh of relief that they too were not shut out of the medals table. A total of 19 different nations earned swimming medals at these Olympic Games.