The swim saying goes that if you have a lane, you have a chance. And indeed that was all 18-year-old Ahmed Hafnaoui needed to have the best swim of his life and win Olympic gold in the men’s 400-meter freestyle final Saturday. The Tunisian swimmer’s was the eighth lane, the one reserved for the slowest qualifier. By 0.14 seconds in prelims, he’d slipped into a race any clued-in swim fan expected would be won by one of the Australian favorites, Elijah Winnington and Jack McLoughlin.
But Hafnaoui’s start was enough to keep him hanging with Winnington, McLoughlin, and the American Kieran Smith, and from there, he never let up. Out of his third turn, Hafnaoui noticeably picked up speed. He kept pace, finishing his last 200 with a set of extremely consistent splits, before he charged in the last 50 to edge out McLoughlin and finish with a 3:43:36 time.
The win was a wonderful surprise. First, to Hafnaoui: After he finished, he scanned the building for the electronic scoreboard, let out a delightful howl and punched the water when he saw his name with a “1” next to it. Outside the pool, and by himself in the fan-less stands, Hafnaoui’s coach was pumping his fists and losing his mind. In his interviews afterward, Hafnaoui was in shock. “I just can’t believe that. It’s amazing,” he said. “I felt better in the water this morning than yesterday, and that’s it. I’m Olympic champion now!”
Also, to everyone else: Here was an event where it may actually have been unhelpful to be a clued-in swim fan, watchful of the Australians since their formidable trials back in June. (Though the clued-in swim fan might also know Australian swimmers underwhelming to be a cherished Olympic tradition.) Even though Winnington faded badly—he’d go on to finish in seventh—the American broadcast disregarded Hafnaoui until the last lap, where he finally earned some signature Rowdy Gaines yelping. The Canadian broadcast paid some more attention to him during the swim, though analyst Byron MacDonald wondered whether Hafnaoui was making a tactical mistake in accelerating when he did, and seemed certain he would fade. “He made his move at the 200 meters. I thought it might have been a bit early. It wasn’t a bit early,” MacDonald said, chuckling after the finish. “It was perfect.”
Hafnaoui agreed. “The second 200, I feel great in the water, and I go fast and that’s it,” he said in his pretty charming press conference. He joins Ous Mellouli, distance king, as the second Tunisian swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal. (Mellouli won the 1500-meter freestyle in Beijing from an outside lane, too.) McLoughlin, who in lane two couldn’t have known what was going on on the other side of the pool, was a gracious silver medalist. “It’s the Olympic Games and anything can happen,” he said, praising Hafnaoui. “I think the best people are the ones who can come up and swim their best times at the Olympic Games.” Smith, the bronze medalist, was asked about Hafnaoui and probably spoke for much of the swimming world when he said, “I know nothing about him, have never heard of him.”