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Eric the Eagle Leaves a Lasting Impression

September 19, 2000|MIKE PENNER

SYDNEY, Australia — The Flying Dutchman? The Mighty Thorpedo? The Gutty Little De Bruijn?

Sorry, the biggest swimming story at these Olympic Games splashed into the pool at Sydney International Aquatic Center today--and really should have been equipped with inner tube and snorkel first.

Eric Moussambani is a 22-year-old from Equatorial Guinea who has a chance to make it to 23, although for two minutes and 100 meters, it was definitely touch and go.

Eric the Eagle, as he was immediately christened after surviving his 100-meter freestyle prelim, is a member of the Equatorial Guinea swim team, even though he first learned to swim in January. (Those Equatorial Guinean Olympic swim trials must have been something.) He trains in a 20-meter pool with no lane markers in his west African homeland and had never before raced longer than 50 meters in his life.

Moussambani was invited to the Games through an IOC program that allows a handful of athletes from small countries to compete even though they do not meet qualifying standards designed to weed out such overmatched entrants as Eddie "the Eagle" Edwards, the hapless ski-jumping hero of the 1988 Winter Olympics.

Eric the Eagle made his 100-meter debut at the Olympics, where he was originally scheduled to swim in a three-man heat. But when the other two competitors false-started, Moussambani was forced to go it alone. Which is where the trouble started.

At the sound of the electronic horn, Moussambani plunged into the pool wearing your basic off-the-rack swim trunks with drawstring hanging out front--now known as the "Lastskin" swimsuit, certain to trigger a craze at Targets everywhere. Still unfamiliar with the fundamentals, Moussambani kept his head above the water for the entire 100 meters, possibly because it was easier to call for a lifeguard that way.

For nearly two full minutes, Moussambani churned and churned. He barely made it to the wall for something that vaguely resembled a flip turn, then set out for the final 50 meters, which, to him, must have looked like the whole of the Pacific.

With each fitful stroke, the crowd grew louder and louder, urging Moussambani onward. Keep plugging, mate! Keep dog-paddling!

With about 10 meters to go, Moussambani was completely spent. He seemed on the verge of quitting, gasping and flailing now. Just when it seemed time to call in the Coast Guard, however, Moussambani resumed thrashing his way home, finally touching at 1 minute 52.72 seconds--more than a minute slower than the fastest swimmers here.

Once he wrenched his exhausted body out of the pool and gathered his breath, Moussambani consented to an interview. Through an interpreter, he told reporters, "I want to send hugs and kisses to the crowd. It was their cheering that kept me going."

At twice the distance, Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands swam seven seconds faster en route to his 200-meter freestyle victory over Australia's Ian Thorpe. That's right: twice as long, seven seconds faster.

Eric the Eagle at 100 meters: 1:52.72.

The Flying Dutchman at 200 meters: 1:45.35.

Van Den Hoogenband's victory was nothing short of amazing, seeing as how he was racing now only against Ian the Invincible but also the greatest hopes and dreams of millions of finger-crossing Aussies.

Shameless pro-Aussie boosterism crept its way into the broadcast booth, with the Channel 7 commentator announcing as Thorpe and Van Den Hoogenband headed into the final turn, "Let's hope Van Den Hoogenband hasn't much left!"

The Dutchman had more than enough, unfortunately for the Channel 7 team. Once Van Den Hoogenband closed the race down, waiting for a challenge from Thorpe that never really came, a crestfallen broadcaster, trying to buck up millions of crestfallen television viewers, perked up: "What a courageous swim by Ian Thorpe!"

(Write that one down. "Courageous" is Aussie slang for "losing." So hard keeping up with the language here.)

And a few seconds later: "Swimming won tonight. Times are irrelevant."

It's tough, trying to cope with the unimaginable. Thorpe couldn't possibly lose. Same way the U.S. softballers couldn't lose. But, you know, stuff happens. Dot Richardson, an orthopedic surgeon who makes her living with calm nerves and unfaltering hands, committed two errors in the top of the 11th inning and Japan defeated the United States, 2-1, ending the Americans' 112-game winning streak.

Not to panic, Yankee fans. The U.S. softballers also lost during the round-robin phase of the 1996 Olympics, to Australia, and came back to win the gold medal. It should happen again here. The U.S. softballers are still in the mix, still there with a fighting chance.

Not so with Thorpedo, who is done with individual Olympic 200 freestyle races until 2004.

Ordinarily, Australians are moved to verse about their sporting achievements. Billabong, sing a song. But post-defeat depression being what it is, a Yank will have to step in and pinch-hit today.

Oh, somewhere in this sunburned country kids are smiling bright;

They did not hear the news today, they overdosed on Vegemite;

And somewhere men are cheering, as boomerangs are tossed;

But there is no joy in Sydney--the mighty Thorpedo has lost.

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