By Chaker Belhadj
TUNIS, Tunisia, December 27. IN a great day for swimming in North Africa, Ous Mellouli was voted the Tunisian Athlete of the Year at the traditional annual ceremony organized by the nation's leading newspaper, Le Renouvateur, since 1967.
The 131 journalists and other media representatives gave Mellouli 510 points to easily best professional footballer (soccer player) Hatem Trabelsi, who plays for the Ajax Amsterdam (Nederland) team, who had 289 points. In all, thirty-eight athletes received votes.
The last time a Tunisian swimmer earned this honor was in 1990 when Senda Gharbi won six African titles at the African Championships held in Tunis, Mellouli then was only six years old.
The election of the University of Southern California freshman was anticipated after his brilliant 2003 season, during which he set 23 new national records and became, on July 27 in Barcelona, the first Tunisian swimmer to win a medal at the World Championships with his brilliant 4:15.36 in the 400 IM. That time was also an African record. On August 5, he was received and honored by the president of Tunisia for this achievement.
Previously, on March 28, Mellouli had spoken with him after having placed third in the 400 yards IM in 3:43.10 at the NCAA Championships in Austin (third fastest time all-time by a foreign swimmer and 11th fastest in NCAA history).
Mellouli, who will celebrate his 20th birthday on February 16, placed fourth in individual points at the NCAAs. Earlier in March, at the Pac-10 Championships in Long Beach, California, Coach Mark Schubert's swimmer finished second in the 400 IM and 1650 yard freestyle after having established, in February, a Stanford pool record during the USC-Stanford dual meet. These accomplishments led to his being honored as the PAC-10 Newcomer of the Year.
After the NCAAs, Mellouli participated successfully at the French Nationals in Saint Etienne in April, placing first in two events (400m freestyle in 3:52.34 and 400IM in 4:17.03) after having broken, for the first time during his career, an African record when he clocked 2:01.50 in the prelims of the 200 IM. Before settling in Los Angeles, Mellouli spent three years in France, leaving Tunisia at 15 to better develop his talent.
After the Worlds in Barcelona, Ous decided to swim in the African Games, held October 5 to 11 in Abuja, Nigeria. There he equaled Gharbi’s achievements from 1990, winning six continental titles with victories in the 200, 400, 800 and 1500 meters freestyle, and the 200 and 400m individual medley. Upon returning to L.A., he assumed a leadership role on his USC team and won seven events in dual meets against Texas, Arizona and Arizona State and at the Texas Invitational.
2003 was a tremendously successful year for Ous. All of Tunisia wishes him even greater success in 2004.