Oussama Mellouli (16 February, 1984) is a Tunisian freestyle and individual medley swimmer and is among the world’s leading athletes at distances ranging from 200m to 1500m.
Mellouli left his native Tunisia at the age of 15 to study in France, before moving on to the University of Southern California to further his studies and his swimming career with coach Dave Salo and the USC Trojans, with whom he enjoyed considerable success. His first taste of major international success came at the 2003 World Championships in Barcelona, where he earned a bronze medal in the 400m IM. In 2004 he made his first Olympic appearance in Athens, and while he did not medal, he broke African records in the 400m IM final (finishing fourth) and in both his heat and the semi-final of the 200m IM. Later in the year he won his first major international gold medal in the 400m IM at the Indianapolis World Short Course Championships, also getting bronze in the 200m IM.
2005 signalled another year of progress and impressive performances, with gold medals coming in the 800m freestyle, and 200m and 400m IM at the Mediterranean Games in Alería, Spain. A few weeks later at the World Championships in Montreal, Mellouli once again bettered his African record in the 400m IM during his bronze medal swim, and also picked up a third-placed finish in the 400m freestyle. Continuing improvement made the swimming world take notice when he beat Michael Phelps in the 400m IM at the US Open in West Lafayette, although this performance was later overshadowed and nullified by a retroactive suspension for taking a stimulant to help with an exam. The 18-month sanction also invalidated some notable performances in 2007, which included bettering his 200m IM and 400m IM African records in Missouri – the fourth time he’d broken the 200m mark – as well as an 800m freestyle title and 400m freestyle silver at the World Championships in Melbourne.
Thankfully for swimming enthusiasts, Mellouli was able to participate in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he shocked the sporting world by inflicting Grant Hackett’s first defeat in 11 years in the 1500m freestyle, at the same time becoming the first African male swimmer to win an individual gold medal and the first Tunisian to win an Olympic swimming title. Perhaps even more remarkable, his performance came despite two herniated disks in his back that had restricted his training leading up to the Games.
2009 established him as a real contender in any of his chosen disciplines and distances, as he started out the major international season by winning all five of his events (200m, 400, 1500m freestyle, and 200m, 400m IM) at the 2009 Mediterranean Games in Pescara, Italy, in championship record times. A month later a the World Championships in Rome, he confirmed his world class status by winning the 1500m freestyle in the second fastest time in history, and getting silver medals in the 400m and 800m freestyle, with the latter inside the existing world record time. This form continued into 2010, which included four medals at the World Short Course Championships in Dubai – a gold in the 1500m freestyle, a silver in the 400m IM, and bronzes in the 200m and 400m freestyle. His 1500 victory was particularly impressive since an administrative oversight by the Tunisian Swimming Federation meant that, rather than swim with the world’s best in the evening, he had to swim in one of the slow heats earlier in the day … on his own, with no other swimmers in the pool.
Mellouli’s form leading up to the World Championships in Shanghai in July, 2011 was impressive, with victories in the majority of his races in US Swimming’s Grand Prix series, including a victory over Michael Phelps in the 200m IM, as well as a 200m breaststroke victory for good measure. Unfortunately, this form did not translate into results in Shanghai, and although he made the finals of both the 400m and 800m freestyle, he failed to make it through the heats to defend his title in his signature event, the 1500m freestyle.
In contrast to his disappointing 2011 World Championships, the London Olympics in 2012 were nothing short of historic for Mellouli. First he redeemed his 1500m freestyle form with a bronze medal, and then made history with his 10km open water gold, becoming the first person to win medals in both the pool and open water. It was a fitting riposte and return to the podium for a swimmer whose career has seen everything from the highs of victory to the lows of injury and suspension.
Oussama Mellouli is big – 1.92m tall (6’3”), with a healthy frame to go with it. One might think that it could be a rather imposing frame – which it is … in the pool – but witness one of his smiles, and all “imposing” ideas melt away. The charm of Oussama’s smile is that his eyes are as expressive as his mouth, emitting warmth and the friendly persona that lies beneath it. Perhaps it’s his Tunisian upbringing, perhaps simply the product of a loving family, whose absence is his biggest sacrifice in the decision to live and train in California. It was, after all, his mother that first encouraged him to swim, purely for recreational reasons initially (perhaps to get him and his “crazy” siblings out of her hair for a while) in a modest pool in the town of Al Marsa, just north of Tunis.
For all the charm of his smile, however, it’s ironic that Oussama’s career has been such an up-and-down affair, attracting controversy and challenging his spirit when times have been tough. First came his 18-month suspension for using an illegal stimulant to help in his exams. It was the biggest challenge of his career, or perhaps his life, since there was nothing he could do about it, and he had to pick himself up, move on, and work towards redeeming himself. That he did so in such emphatic fashion at the Beijing Olympics not long after the suspension ended is testament to his resolve.
His success, naturally, did not go unnoticed in his home country, and he was feted as a hero, including by the country’s authoritarian president, Ben Ali. Under his regime, Oussama was expected to dedicate his victories to the president, and when he didn’t, his father was asked why by senior government officials. Not long before the revolutionary events in Tunisia of early 2011, Oussama had been given a conquering hero’s welcome after his accomplishments at the World Short Course Championships in Dubai. Not long afterwards he was watching with anguish the events in Tunisia from his Los Angeles home, wishing he could be there where his heart was. He’s now thankful for the change – which he believes was inevitable – and believes that Tunisia will be a more peaceful place for it. Among the country’s initiatives as they recovered from their turmoil was “I Love Tunisia”, an online campaign to polish the country’s image and attract tourism, one of its major sources of income. Oussama was an ambassador for the campaign.
Injuries have also played havoc with his career, with a herniated disk in his back restricting his training leading up to the Beijing Olympics, and in 2010 a torn rotator cuff curtailing his season significantly. That he has been able to return from these and other adversities with the results he has – on more than one occasion – is a sign of his abundant character, and focused determination. At USC, where he graduated with a degree in computer engineering and computer science, he’s regarded as bright and a leader. Not surprising, after all he’s been through. His challenges have also made him look at life differently as well, taking things one day at a time, and being thankful for the gifts and opportunities he’s been blessed with.
Oussama’s victories in the pool have had a big impact, not only in Tunisia, but in the Arab world beyond its borders as well. He was the face of the 2010 World Short Course Championships in Dubai in its promotions leading up to the event, and his 2008 Olympic victory sparked a sharp rise in swimmer numbers throughout the country and the region. His historic Olympic pool and open water double in London produced an even greater response in his country, with the newly free people of the Tunisian revolution embracing and applauding him as a free Tunisian champion.
Oussama is encouraged by these developments, and also wants to see initiatives to generate enthusiasm for the sport. He conducted a clinic after the Dubai event, and encourages school-level programmes to get youngsters engaged early. As it’s proven to Oussama, swimming is more than a sport, it helps an individual to work hard, fight through difficulty and pain, and continue to strive for one’s goals. For a youngster launching themselves into a swimming career – and life, even – there aren’t many better leaders around to give them inspiration.