Throwback Thursday: Before Tragic Death, Alexander Dale Oen Wins Emotional Gold at His Final Major Meet

Alexander Dale Oen -- Photo Courtesy: Presse Sports-USA TODAY Sports

Throwback Thursday: Alexander Dale Oen Wins Emotional Gold for Norway at His Final Major Meet

The news was a gut punch not just for his family and friends but for the entire swimming community. Late at night on April 30, 2012,  Norwegian breaststroker Alexander Dale Oen passed away suddenly, his cause of death later determined to be a heart attack because of an undiagnosed blood clot. Dale Oen is best remembered as a talented and classy swimmer lost far too soon, at the height of his prowess, and it is a testament to his character that both swimmers who won Olympic gold in breaststroke later that year, South Africa’s Cameron van der Burgh and Hungary’s Daniel Gyurta, went out of their way to pay their respects.

Any mention of Dale Oen immediately conjures memories of the tragic nature of his death, and thus, it’s easy to forget the talent that he showed in the pool. Dale Oen was the favorite to win Olympic gold that year in the 100 breast, four years after claiming a surprise silver medal in Beijing and one year after the greatest victory of his career, a world title in his signature event.

A highly-anticipated showdown on day two of the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai matched Dale Oen against the two-time defending Olympic champion, Japan’s Kosuke Kitajima, and the man who had set the world record at 58.58 with the aid of a full-body polyurethane suit en route to the 2009 world title, Australia’s Brenton Rickard. Indeed, Dale Oen was the winner, finishing in a time of 58.71 that made him — at the time — the No. 3 performer in history and fastest in a textile suit. Dale Oen won the race by seven tenths, with Kitajima failing to break 1:00 or reach the podium.

The win made Dale Oen the first male swimmer from Norway to reach the podium at the World Championships and the first Norwegian swimmer, male or female, to win a gold medal. And he pulled off the accomplishment at a dark time for his nation.

While Dale Oen was already on the other side of the world preparing for Worlds, Norway had been hit by two terrorist attacks, first a bombing in downtown Oslo and then a mass shooting in Utoya, Seventy-seven people were killed while more than 320 were injured. In the wake of the attacks, the swimmer’s thoughts waivered. He could not forget how his countrymen and women back home were suffering. So Dale Oen’s special moment was a career-defining swim but also a lifeline to those watching from grief-stricken Norway.

“I try to imagine what is happening back home, but it’s quite hard,” Dale Oen said after winning gold. “We need to let everyday life come back because we can’t let things be ruined. I am happy to put my head in the water for a minute or two and focus on the game. In a time like this for Norway, we need to be together, to be one. I know everyone back home is paralyzed and I can feel the emotion. While I’m here in Shanghai, I’m going to show my best.”

Indeed, less than one year before Norway would mourn a life lost far too soon, Dale Oen earned his status as a national hero.

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