Olympic star Mellouli back in pool, eyes worlds
TUNIS (AFP) –
Double Olympic champion Oussama Mellouli has taken to the water again after a long break following the London Games with his eye on competing in the 1500m and 10km at this summer’s World Championships in Barcelona.
The Tunisian became the first man in Olympic history to win gold medals in both pool and open-water races when he won the 10km swimming marathon in London after having topped the 1500m freestyle podium in Beijing four years previously.
The first African man to win a gold medal in an Olympic swimming event, Mellouli told AFP he was now raring to go after having a time-out following his success in London.
“I want to compete at the World Championships,” the 29-year-old said of the July 19-August 4 event. “It will be 10 years since my first medal, in the world champs (also) in Barcelona in 2003.
“I want to compete in both the open-water event and the 1500m.”
Mellouli admitted he had backtracked on post-Olympic thoughts of calling it a day.
“After London, I said I was ready to take my leave,” he said. “But I re-evaluated my situation and I fixed for myself new goals with this new passion that is open-water swimming.
“At my age and after the career I’ve had, it’s cool to have that sort of stimulus.”
Mellouli, who has trained since 2002 in Los Angeles where he is studying for a Masters in sports management, spent two months in his homeland after London but insisted he was not completely out of shape.
“I’ve kept fit but I’ve not been training intensively,” he said. “Four months out from the worlds, I’ll see how it pans out and afterwards will seriously start on the Olympic cycle.”
Mellouli’s participation in the Barcelona worlds will also offer the Tunisian a chance to further banish the memory of the 18-month ban he received in 2007 for a doping offence.
It cost him the gold and silver medals he had won at the 2007 World Championships, but he rebounded in style at the Beijing Olympics and continued that form through for another four years.
Mellouli, born in the fashionable seaside town of La Marsa, 20km (12 miles) northeast of Tunis, left for France as a 15-year-old swimming hopeful before moving on to California three years later.
“Oussama, it’s a Tunisian-American mix with a little bit of French thrown in!” he jested.
“Leaving the home at 15 years of age was very tough,” he added. “I got up before everyone else (during his stay at the French centre of swimming excellence).
“It wasn’t to go to the canteen but to the telephone box because I cried every morning, to my mother… It was the same thing in the evening.”
Mellouli said the 2011 Arab Spring revolution in Tunisia which saw the fall of long-time dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali had created a “free country”.
“We live in a new Tunisia after the revolution, we’re in the process of creating it together,” he said.
“After the revolution, I changed. I now swim for a free country. Before, they stole that pride away from me, that pride of speaking about my country.
“I was limited in my talking about it, everything was scripted. There was fear, absolutely.”
Mellouli added: “They politicised my career without me choosing it. Luckily the revolution offered me freedom from this.
“The Tunisian anthem has taken on a real meaning. I feel like I’m protecting my Tunisia.”
Mellouli’s mother Khadija, a former school headmistress who instilled a sense of education in all four of her children, described Oussama as the “cherry on the cake”.
“I understand that he wants to come back to Tunisia, but he must finish his studies first,” she said, adding: “I want him to marry a Tunisian woman, not an American!”