Ahmed Hafnaoui was understandably surprised when he produced a gold medal-winning swim to stun the 400m Freestyle field at the Tokyo Olympics two weeks ago.
Still, somewhere deep inside, the Tunisian teenager knew he was capable of causing a stir at the Games. After all, he wouldn’t have taken a year off from high school had he not had serious intentions.
“It was a difficult decision. I bet on myself and it paid off,” Hafnaoui told Arab News.
The 18-year-old produced one of the most unexpected results in the pool in Tokyo, topping the podium after being the slowest to qualify for the final a day earlier.
Hafnaoui, who was eighth in the 400m Freestyle at the Youth Olympics three years ago, improved his personal best from 3:46.16 before Tokyo 2020 to the 3:43.36 he clocked to clinch gold.
From his explosive last 50m, to his jubilant celebration, to his casual shirt-on-shorts look during the medal ceremony, Hafnaoui’s victory will go down as one of the great stories of these Games.
“It’s very difficult to win from lane eight, especially as you cannot really see the leaders of the race in the lanes further down. But after the opening 200m, I was able to see some things that gave me the belief I could go for gold and I battled so hard in the last 50m,” he said.
A video of Hafnaoui’s family screaming wildly while watching his race from back home in Tunisia went viral, and has evoked many emotions from millions who have viewed it worldwide.
“I knew they were at home following closely and I expected this would be their reaction because they’ve always been supporting me and watching my races and they usually get very emotional when they see me competing,” said Hafnaoui. “It made me so happy to see that I’ve made them this happy.”
Hafnaoui’s success didn’t just make his family happy; it lifted an entire nation going through tough times during this pandemic. His win coincided with Tunisia’s Republic Day, and came on the heels of his compatriot Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi’s silver medal triumph in taekwondo.
“It was a very happy day for Tunisia. I think it gave the people some hope to wake up to the news that they have an Olympic champion. It shows we still have champions and we are always able to do better and better,” said Hafnaoui, whose gold medal was just the fifth in Tunisia’s history at the Games.
“Right before my 400m race, I heard Mohamed Khalil Jendoubi won silver in taekwondo. We are very similar in age and I was so happy for him and it was one of the things that gave me huge motivation to get a medal myself.”
Hafnaoui was given a hero’s welcome back home on his arrival from Tokyo, and he donated his swim shorts to the Olympic museum. His exploits earned nods from Tunisian celebrities and fellow swimmers such as Michael Phelps, who described his swim as “unbelievable.”
“It means a lot to me because Michael Phelps is the most-decorated swimmer in history, he’s a legend. Something like this gives me more confidence in myself,” said the affable teen.
A standout moment for Hafnaoui came in the Olympic Village when he was congratulated by three-time Olympic medalist and multiple-time world champion Gregorio Paltrinieri. Hafnaoui has long admired the Italian swimmer and was thrilled their paths crossed after his race.
Hafnaoui paid tribute to his parents – his father Mohamed used to be in Tunisia’s national basketball team – and his coach Jobran Touili for their support throughout his career.
Touili has been in his corner for the past seven years and instilled a great deal of belief in him, despite the turbulent times all athletes had to navigate during the pandemic.
“My coach always helped me have belief in myself because we trained so hard together and we went through so much together that allowed us to dream big,” said Hafnaoui.
“We spent two years preparing for these Olympics. We were confident we would get good results.
“We made so many sacrifices, myself and my coach; we sacrificed our times, we put in so much effort. Covid did not make things easy for us, pools were closed, which meant I couldn’t train regularly.”
Hafnaoui, who regards Muhammad Ali as his biggest idol, spent nearly two months last year without access to a pool, and when he did manage to swim, his training would get interrupted every few days because of changes to rules.
Asked what he considers to be his strongest traits as an athlete, he says: “I think my heart is one of my biggest assets and I’m very ambitious.”
Hafnaoui has already his sights set on the World Short Course Championships in Japan and has yet to decide whether he will travel to the US after graduating from high school to swim for a university there, or whether he’ll choose a different route. He plans to add the 1,500m Freestyle event to his repertoire, alongside the 400 and 800.
The North African is aware his life will significantly change after his impressive Olympics debut but is looking forward to the ride, wherever it takes him.
“I’m going through many new things at the moment. The pressure from the media, the pressure from the ministry, the federation and everything, there is pressure for me to continue to do this well and even better. I’m hoping I will learn how to deal with all this and to enjoy the experience as a whole.”