TOKYO, July 25, 2021 – Tunisian teenager Ahmed Hafnaoui surprised himself and the swimming world with a stunning victory in the men’s 400m freestyle final at Tokyo 2020 on Sunday to claim his first-ever international title.
The 18-year-old fought off the challenge from Australia’s Jack McLoughlin and the USA’s Kieran Smith to touch the wall first in 3:43.36 and claim his country’s third Olympic gold medal in the sport.
The day before, Hafnaoui had only qualified for the final by the skin of his teeth, occupying the eight and last spot in a time of 3:43.6 – he was just 0.14sec ahead of the 9th seeded. Now he is an Olympic champion, three years after finishing eighth in the final of the same event at the 2018 Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires. McLoughlin and Smith took silver and bronze respectively.
“I’m feeling great and proud,” Hafnaoui said in a press conference room filled with international media as the medal hanging around his neck glittered. “I’m so happy to win the gold medal. I can’t believe it but in the second 200m I felt great in the water and I went fast and that’s it. Of course I was surprised and it’s unbelievable. I touched the wall and I saw myself first.”
Hafnaoui became the second Tunisian to win a gold medal in swimming after Oussama Mellouli. “I have a great relationship with him (Mellouli),” Hafnaoui said. “He wished me luck for the race and I wish him luck in the 10k in open water. He is a legend and I wish to be like him one day.” Mellouli won his first gold at Beijing 2008 in the men’s 1500m freestyle and his second in the men’s 10km marathon at London 2012. Tunisia has won five gold medals in his Olympic history.
“I was in tears because when I saw the flag of my country and I heard the anthem in the background. It was great and I’m so proud of it,” enthused Hafnaoui, who began swimming at age six after his father Mohamed, a former member of the national basketball team registered him in a swimming club. “I dedicate it to all the Tunisian people. I say to them ‘you have got a champ now. I’m so happy to get a gold medal, be proud of me’. When I hit the water I was just thinking about winning a medal not the time. I was just thinking about winning a medal and going faster.”
Hafnaoui is not done with his Tokyo 2020 journey as he will be competing in the men’s 800m freestyle on Tuesday July 27. In the meantime though, he has been able to catch the eye of the world and would be looking to complete a historic double.