Ahmed Hafnaoui: Tunisian Star Is Biggest Surprise of Tokyo – So Far

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ahmed Hafnaoui (TUN) celebrates with his gold medal during the medals ceremony for the men's 400m freestyle during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

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Ahmed Hafnaoui: Tunisian Star Is Biggest Surprise of Tokyo – So Far

Everyone in the Tokyo Aquatics Centre was stunned as the men’s 400-meter freestyle concluded, and that’s when the winning swimmer noticed he was on top. Ahmed Hafnaoui provided the first shock of the Olympic Games in Tokyo when he won the 400-meter freestyle with a time of 3:43.36, just edging out Australia’s Jack McLoughlin and Kieran Smith of the United States.

And it wasn’t just the whole arena in disbelief, Hanauoi was surprised as well. Frantically looking to the scoreboard, Hafnaoui saw his name listed as the gold medalist. To this realization, he screamed, letting out his excitement and jubilation. He remained emotional in his post-race interview.

“I just can’t believe that, it’s amazing,” Hafnaoui said. “I felt better in the water this morning than yesterday and that’s it. I’m the Olympic champion now. I just put my head in the water. I just can’t believe it. It’s a dream come true.”

Hafnaoui’s family, which was not present at the Games due to COVID-19 restrictions, had its reaction caught on camera, in a video that has since gone viral and shows members hysterically shouting at the television as they cheered Hafnaoui on. The stunning win shows that anything can happen on any given day in sports. Hafnaoui came into Tokyo ranked 16th and he squeaked into the finals with the eighth-fastest time in the preliminaries. More, he was also the youngest swimmer in the final, at 18 years old.

Starting on the outside in Lane Eight, he was not expected to keep tempo with the other swimmers. Yet, that’s exactly what happened. After settling in, Hafnaoui was able to maintain a podium spot for the first 350 meters, before giving it his all in the last leg to scrape past McLoughlin.

Jul 25, 2021; Tokyo, Japan; Ahmed Hafnaoui (TUN) celebrates after winning the men's 400m freestyle final during the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Tokyo Aquatics Centre. Mandatory Credit: Rob Schumacher-USA TODAY Network

Photo Courtesy: Rob Schumacher — USA Today Sports

The win was Tunisia’s third Olympic gold in swimming and fifth Olympic gold overall. Hafnaoui has written his name into the history books forever with his all-time upset.

But who exactly is Hafnaoui, and where did he come from?

The Tunisian has sports in his background. Hafnaoui’s father, Mohamed, was a professional basketball player with the Tunisian national team. The elder Hafnaoui put his son in a local swimming club and from there, Hafnaoui began to hone his craft. At the age of 12, he joined Tunisia’s national swimming program. One of Hafnaoui’s biggest inspirations in swimming was Oussama Mellouli, the only other Tunisian swimmer to win gold. Mellouli won gold in the 1500 freestyle at the 2008 Games and was the 10k open-water champion at the 2012 Games.

Hafnaoui spoke highly of his compatriot, who is also competing in Tokyo in open water.

“I have a great relationship with him,” Hafnaoui said of Mellouli. “He wished me good luck before the race. And I wish him well in the 10k open water. He is a legend. I wish to be like him one day.”

In 2018, Hafnaoui finished seventh in the 800 freestyle at the Youth Olympic Games in Argentina. He was also eighth in the 400 freestyle and 11th in the 200 free. The path to Tokyo looked unlikely before the Games’ one-year postponement due to the pandemic. The extra year allowed Hafnaoui to further develop strength and size, but he was still a longshot.

In 2019, Hafnaoui spoke of his desire to win Olympic gold, with the intent of accomplishing that feat at the 2024 Games in Paris. Now, Hafnaoui can look to Paris with the goal to defend his Olympic title.

Hafnaoui also plans on swimming at the collegiate level, though he has not given any indication on where he will take his talents.

Schools will be lined up for his services.