As America basks in the glory of Michael Phelps' ascent to Olympic dominance, it's important to not let our current triumph fool us into believing that we're infallible. Swimming just isn't as easy as the Phelpses of the world make it out to be. To prove that, let's take a look back on a now forgotten aquatic tragedy.
Well, that man doesn't look tragic. He looks like Nederlander scientists genetically engineered Dolph Lundgren Lite to hunt and strangle sharks for a movie that's mostly a chase scene. He's more focused on underwater movement than a torpedo, and faster. That man is Pieter van den Hoogenband. He has three golds in Olympic events. This was before Michael Phelps became the first walking Atlantean bank, a repository for aquatic gold. Van den Hoogenband was the Olympic swimming champion in the first year the world suddenly cared about Olympic swimming. And nobody knows his name, because he was outshone by a guy who couldn't swim.
Eric "The Eel" Moussambani was an Olympic swimming virgin. He'd never seen a 50-meter pool before, but now that he had his clothes off and access to one, nothing was going to stop him from diving in and flailing around until he was finished. For most 100-meter freestyle swimmers, turning for the return leg is a vital maneuver. For Eric it was a genuine surprise. Someone, somehow, managed to screw up translating numbers, and Equatorial Guinea's contender arrived in Sydney thinking the 100-meter freestyle was a 50-meter event. And no one has lost more limb coordination by turning since Anakin Skywalker became Darth Vader.
Twisting underwater somehow flipped his "ability to swim" switch to OFF, converting his stroke from an already embarrassing doggy paddle into a lifeguard-alerting puppy paddle. An Olympian demonstration of physical skill turned into a Disney movie about self-belief not triumphing over adversity, and only barely managing over buoyancy.
This is about as fast as he moved during the event.
Moussambani was a hero. A wildcard scheme, translation errors and ludicrous coincidences meant he had to compete in an event twice as long as one he already knew he wasn't ready for, in front of the entire world, on his own. That makes the nightmare about an exam you haven't studied for in the nude in front of your entire family seem like a wet dream. Faced with this impossible challenge and more public humiliation potential than all of YouTube combined, Moussambani did the only thing he could: He jumped at it face first. Never mind Phelps' fish-adapted torso or ultrasonically welded swimsuit, Moussambani was born utterly fucktogive-free and with five shots of tequila encoded in his DNA. If he'd been born 40 years earlier, Sgt. Rock's battalion would have had an Aquaman.
He didn't qualify. He didn't even nearly qualify. He only barely made it back out of the pool. In a sport defined by tenths of a second, he came in more than a minute over the winning time. Moussambani has since vastly improved, halving his record and training the 2012 Equatorial Guinea swimming team, but he could only have gotten worse in the water by wearing concrete shoes to Amity Island.
The result was a cross between an inspirational movie and a brutal examination of war: the plucky no-hoper achieves fame through sheer determination, but there are no real winners, because his ridiculous victory only stole from another good guy. Pieter van den Hoogenband's entire life was a training montage -- he cuts through the water more impressively than Moses -- and this may be the first time you've heard of him, because the only thing anyone wanted to talk about when it came to swimming and the 2000 Olympics was a dude who could barely float.
If the Olympic tragedy gold goes to van den Hoogenband, the silver and bronze go to Karim Bare of Niger and Farkhod Oripov of Tajikstan. They were meant to race Moussambani in the first heat but disqualified themselves with a simultaneous false-start. That means they got to sit poolside and watch the man they were supposed to race deliver the absolute worst performance you possibly could. False start? They could have jumped in the pool 45 seconds late and still beat Moussambani. Instead, their itchy trigger fingers got them disqualified.
An entire Cannes worth of cinematic tragedy.
They haven't been seen in the pool since. Possibly because they've been permanently stuck in traffic, too terrified to take the green light in case they start too early again.