Guest feature by Sarah Sotoodeh
LOS ANGELES, California, June 20. TUNISIAN Olympic gold medalist Oussama “Ous” Mellouli learned how to swim after his mother, a retired teacher, saw a child drowning in the ocean. She signed up four-year-old Mellouli along with his two older brothers at a local swimming program in their hometown of La Marsa, 10 miles northeast of Tunis, the capital.
Twenty-four years later, on a cool Los Angeles morning in March, Mellouli is training at the University of Southern California McDonald Swim Stadium, which was used during the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics. Nestled between a football field, baseball diamond, and parking garage, the facility is home to the post-graduate Trojan Swim Club as well as the USC swimming and diving teams. The Trojan Swim Club is made up of international Olympians and Olympic hopefuls, and today, the swimmers are doing laps across the pool. It is 8 a.m. with a brisk wind–it's cold. The pool is quiet except for the steady sound of splashing as the athletes swim lap after lap, and the booming voice of their coach, Dave Salo, a well-known figure in the swimming community. The Swim Club practices at the pool six days a week, up to twice a day.
After a two-hour practice, Mellouli walks out of the locker room wearing sweatpants, house slippers and a sweater with the hood pulled over his close-cropped black hair and tanned face. At 28, in addition to the 2008 Olympic gold in the 1500-meter freestyle, he won medals at the FINA World Championships, the Mediterranean Games, and the Pan-Arab Games. Now he's ready for breakfast.
At the Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf, he orders hot coffee and a cream cheese-covered bagel. He talks about his first Olympics, the 2000 Sydney Summer Games, when he was 16.
“I didn't do well. I was 43 out of 45 people in my event. But from that point on, the Olympics was part of my dreaming process.”
At the 2004 Olympics, he placed fifth in the 400 individual medley, setting an African record.
“You learn something and you build your experience. And your dreams become a little bigger.”
In 2008, Mellouli won gold in the 1500 free, and hopes to defend his medal at the 2012 London Olympics this summer.
Mellouli has been training with Salo since 2007, the year Salo began coaching the club. Salo will be an assistant coach for the U.S. Olympic team this summer in London. However, the two got off to a rocky start.
Mellouli said Salo kicked him off the team after he finished final examinations at the end of the semester. He had been missing workouts, and one morning, Salo had pulled him aside and told him he wasn't allowed to practice.
“It was like, 'what do you mean I'm off the team?'” Mellouli said. He left and took the rest of the week off, but later came back and apologized. “I think that's when I realized that he cared, because if he didn't care, he would just let me do whatever I wanted and miss practice. That incident made us click and made me respect my coach,” he says while finishing his breakfast.
“My philosophies of training are different from what he's been exposed to in the past,” Salo said in his office at USC's Kennedy Athletic Building, located next to the pool, in March. “It took him a bit of time to become comfortable with the way I coach him as an athlete. There was a time I actually kicked him off the team because he was not quite showing up and putting in the effort. But once we came to grips with 'I'm going to be coaching in a certain way, and he was going to follow my lead,' he embraced it pretty solidly. What we've done with him is got him to be a lot more consistent. He trains regularly at a faster tempo than he did before I got here.”
As the only Tunisian to win a gold medal in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, and the second Tunisian gold medalist ever, Mellouli is popular in his native country as seen in Magharebia.com, a North African online newspaper. In an article the reporter, Mona Yahia, wrote: “Champion swimmer Oussama Mellouli is the talk of Tunisian families who want their children to be as successful as he is.” He is also the first African male swimmer to win an individual swimming event.
“It's been an honor,” he said, “to represent a small country like Tunisia, which doesn't have much history or tradition in sports at the Olympic level. Especially in the sport of swimming, you work so hard for that one moment, so for it to pay off that way, it's just something special.”
After he won a gold, silver and two bronze medals at the 2010 World Championships in Dubai, he was greeted at the airport by then-Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. The photos with Mellouli are Ben Ali's last official pictures before the beginning of the Arab Spring, a pro-democratic movement, in which demonstrators eventually brought down the government.
“I still have mixed feelings about it,” he said. “We're proud of having to establish a democratic government within our country without foreign intervention, so it's great. But now we're facing other challenges, which are economic challenges. We're trying to find the Tunisian identity.”
The Arab Spring began on December 17, 2010, the day Mohamed Bouazizi, a Tunisian street vendor, set himself on fire in Sidi Bouzid. Six thousand miles away, Mellouli was in Los Angeles, training with the Trojan Swim Club. He had arrived to the U.S. from Tunisia one week before the Arab Spring started. Mellouli found out about the revolution after his mom texted him to go on Skype so she could tell him the news.
“People were just in a total state of paranoia,” he said. When the revolution started, airports were on lockdown and neighborhoods were barricaded.”
Because of what happened in Tunisia in the past year, he's been listening to hip-hop, especially rapper Lupe Fiasco, who is known for rapping about issues, not about degrading women or boasting about money.
“I started listening to political music, not stuff that you listen to in the mainstream radio,” he said, while finishing up breakfast. “I think he raps about real issues about our society. I tap into an unconventional kind of music that has a deeper message–that's got some social value or some political value.”
At 15, Mellouli, the son of a retired policeman, went to Lycee du Rampart, a high school in Marseilles, France, where he would spend the next three years studying and focusing on his swimming.
“We were a close family,” he said. “So I was always with my brothers. It was hard leaving home and going to a totally different environment and having to learn the language, to learn the culture, integrate the system and adapt.”
While there, every week he and his friends walked 45 minutes to town to buy groceries.
“I couldn't stand being away from home. The separation was hard but I think it made me a better athlete. I learned a lot there…especially on my technique as a swimmer.”
Mellouli, fluent in English, French, and Arabic, the official language of Tunisia, moved to America in 2002, when he was 18. In 2007, he graduated from USC with a bachelor's degree in Computer Engineering. After the 2008 Olympics, Mellouli decided to get a master's degree in athletic administration and sports management at USC. He has only one semester left and is taking time off to focus on the upcoming London Olympics.
While an undergraduate, Mellouli took one Adderall pill, an amphetamine, to help him study for an exam. The positive drug test resulted in an 18-month ban, in a ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport. The ban started retroactively from November 2006, stripping him of his gold and silver medal from the 2007 FINA World Swimming Championships.
“I went on and competed in Beijing and got my redemption, won my Olympic gold medal,” he said.
His Olympic gold in the 1500-meter freestyle was a surprise to many who thought Australian Grant Hackett would win again, as Hackett had won the gold in the 1500-meter since the 2000 Olympics.
“It was shocking,” Alan Abrahamson, sportswriter and Olympic expert, said. “Because everyone was like that was Grant Hackett's race for years and years and years. And here was this guy from the African continent by way of USC who'd gotten tagged for doping, a minor doping violation, but still a doping violation, whose done his time and come back. The more you talk to Ous Mellouli, the more you realize he is one of the most thoughtful, genuine young men on the swimming scene. If you are the kind of person that gets up early in the morning, like at 4:30 or 5 in the morning and you're willing to submit yourself to the torture of swimming laps in a cold pool at six o'clock and then again in the afternoon, day after day after day, that's a pretty special person. To become really, really good at it, that takes a lot of character and a lot of will power.”
His teammate Andrew Bree, an Irish swimmer, has known Mellouli since joining the Trojan Swim Club in 2010.
“He's a work horse,” Bree said. “He's a distance swimmer so the work has to be there. He's very dedicated and knows what he wants.”
On one April morning after practice, Mellouli sits at Caf? 84, a USC cafeteria across from the pool. Over a bowl of oatmeal, he talks about his future plans after the Olympics. He hopes to travel to places he's never been, including the Maldives.
“It's hard for me to say anything after this season,” he said. “I don't really project myself beyond this summer.”