Images credited respectively below.
Carrying an Olympian title may have its perks and advantages, but it surely wasn’t an easy journey for most of them. Some had to go through hardships beyond your imagination just to make it to the Olympics arena while others struggled to reach the podium. Winning medals may be the end goal for every Olympic athlete but for some, it was the experience that was the true prize. These Olympic athlete stories will prove to you that sometimes; you don’t need to win to be seen as a national hero.
Mo Farah: The Fallen Olympic Hero
Mo Farah came to the 2016 Rio Olympics for one sole reason: to defend his title in the men’s 5,000 and 10,000 meters event. The long-distance runner was off to a steady start but it all went downhill during the 10th
lap when he suddenly tumbled to the ground after he was accidentally tripped by his training partner, Galen Rupp. Luckily, no one else was affected by the fall or else an unwanted domino effect would have surely fallen in place.
Watch the nerve-wrecking moment here:
Farah appears to be unaffected by the fall and swiftly got back onto his feet and regained his stride. Everyone who was watching the race basically had the same thing in mind – will he finish the race in a timely manner and be the reigning champion? With 16 more laps to go, the two-time Olympic gold medalist pulled his way through and led the pack. As they were heading towards the last lap though, he was overtaken by Paul Tanui of Kenya. Farah wasn’t going to let anyone steal his crown; he sprinted like a mad cheetah in the last 100m and claimed his third Olympic gold.
After the race ended, he confessed that he thought his Olympic dreams were in shambles after the accidental fall. "At one moment I thought my dream was over, my race was over. I tried to be tough, and that is what I did," Farah told BBC Radio 5 Live.
“When I fell down, I was just thinking, ‘Try to get up, try to get up. Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic.’ And then I got up, and I tried to just get through it.”
“As soon as I got up, I was hoping the guys didn’t see me fall down. They did make a bit of a surge. I thought, it’s O.K., it’s O.K., I still have quite a long way to go. If it happened five laps to go, six laps to go, I think the race would have been over.”
"I was thinking 'no, no. I can't let Rhianna [his stepdaughter] down. I always wanted to do it for her. My twins got the double gold from London and I promised this one to her. That's what drove me home.”
Image: The New York Times
The Somalian-born runner is a highly-decorated athlete in Britain and has seven worldwide titles to his name. He is known for his eccentric celebration style called the “Mobot” – an ‘M’ shaped gesture above his head. Farah is also a very thoughtful and family-oriented person as he dedicates each of his Olympic winnings to his children. We admire his dedication and passion towards his career. He is a perfect example of someone who perseveres and never gives up to achieve his goal. Way to go, Farah!
Eric “The Eel” Moussambani
Image: Vince Caligiuri
Eric Moussambani rose to fame after his unforgettable swimming stint during the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. Representing Equatorial Guinea, the swimmer gave a splashing performance of a lifetime that’ll forever go down in the history of the Olympics. Intrigued to find out what we’re talking about? Watch the clip below:
“Eric the Eel” originally had to compete with another two contestants but they were later disqualified for false start. He finished in one minute and 52.72 seconds, which is more than double of the usual time for an Olympic swimmer and also slower than the 200m world record. He obviously did not qualify for the later rounds but he managed to set his own personal best and also a new national record.
You could only imagine how baffling it was for the commentators when everyone in the swimming arena cheered for Moussambani as if he was in the lead for gold despite the fact that he was swimming alone in his heat. This got us all thinking, how on Earth did he even qualify for the Olympics in the first place?
Image: Daily Telegraph
Moussambani got his ticket to the Olympics via a wildcard draw designed to encourage participation by developing countries lacking full training facilities. He attended a nationwide search for national swimmers advertised by their local radio station and it so happens that he was the only one that turned up for the trials
. The selection process was crystal clear; he was Equatorial Guinea’s next Olympian.
Prior to the 2000 Olympics, he had never seen an actual 50m Olympic-size swimming pool and there was no such facility in his country. 6th
May marked his first time seeing a swimming pool but it was far from the Olympic standard sized pool. He had to train in a 12-metre long guest swimming pool at a hotel during the weekends. Not only that, he only learned how to swim just eight months before the Olympics! There was no one to guide him, no coach, no professional lessons, basically he was on his own. Besides the small sized pool, he practiced at rivers and the sea with a few handy tips from some friendly fisherman. Months later, he went on to create a historic moment for his nation and captured the hearts of the whole world.
Eric admitted that the iconic swim changed his life. “Suddenly I started to see myself and my race on all the TV stations around the world, CNN and the rest. I also gave a lot of interviews and the whole thing totally changed my life,” he told in an interview
Fast forward to more than a decade later, he is now the coach for the Equatorial Guinea national swimming team and also an IT engineer. Not only that, thanks to his Olympic appearance, his country now has two 50m Olympic-sized pools for their athletes to train. Who would’ve known, Eric’s initiative to compete in the Olympics would have such a great impact to his country and the sporting world for many years to come.
Joseph Schooling: The Boy Who Schooled Michael Phelps
Image: The Daily Mail
It’s safe to say that it’s every athlete’s dream to compete with their idol let alone beat them. Well that dream eventually came true for Singapore’s Joseph Schooling when he recently beat Michael Phelps during the 100m butterfly finals at the 2016 Rio Olympics. Not only he defeated one of the greatest swimmers of all-time, he also bagged Singapore’s first ever gold medal. Phelps had to settle for silver and had to tie with two other swimmers – Chad le Clos of South Africa and László Cseh of Hungary. It was certainly an unusual sight to see three silver medalists sharing the same podium.
Image: James Hill/The New York Times
Image: James Hill/The New York Times
This wasn’t the first time he competed at the Olympics or against Phelps. He made his Olympic debut during the 2012 London Olympics and swam against Phelps during his qualifying rounds. Unfortunately, he did not qualify for the semi-finals following a poor performance after he was banned from using his swimming cap and goggles. Prior to that, the pair initially met in 2008 when Phelps visited Singapore and stopped by the country club where Schooling and his fellow swimmers were training at.
Schooling gained instant worldwide stardom after he managed to beat Phelps. His new found popularity doesn’t seem to faze him, he remains humble and insists that he’s just a normal guy. “I'm not a superstar, just the kid who beat Phelps that one time” Schooling told Channel News Asia
He credits his success to his parents, university swim team, and coach, Eddie Reese. "My parents sacrificed a lot for me to get here. The things they do for me are crazy, I don't want to go into it but if you ask a lot of parents to do it they wouldn't," he said. The gold medalist also cited that Phelps was the main reason he wanted to be a better swimmer.
“As a kid I wanted to be like him. It’s crazy to think of what happens in eight years.” He also added
: “A lot of this is because of Michael. He’s the reason I wanted to be a better swimmer.”
At the postrace news conference, Schooling was seated next to Phelps. Phelps’ celebrity status seemed to overshadow Schooling after journalists were mostly directing questions to him in which he responded: “Joe should be getting most of the questions. He just won a gold medal.”
Phelps told the media that he was “proud of Joe” and added that he has been able to “watch him grow and turn into the swimmer that he is.” The 23-time Olympic gold medalist even took to his Instagram account to congratulate the Singaporean.
Joseph Schooling’s win was well received by sports fans around the world. Naturally, memes of him and Phelps popped up around the internet and many joked that Phelps is such a great swimmer that he could inspire another person to beat him.
Schooling will receive SGD $1,000,00 (RM2,978,651.35) from the Singaporean government as part of a program aimed at encouraging their national athletes to excel in sports. Congratulations Schooling! You’ll definitely inspire budding swimmers all over the world to beat their idols in the next Olympic Games.
Yusra Mardini: The Olympic Refugee with a Heart of Gold
Image: The Daily Mail
This 18-year old swimmer went from swimming to flee Syria to swimming at the Olympics. Yusra Mardini’s name came to light after she was picked to join the Refugee Olympic Team which was recently introduced this year. Apart from her outstanding swimming skills, it was her extraordinary backstory that garnered her worldwide attention and interest.
Mardini is a talented swimmer who was set to represent Syria at the upcoming Olympics. Due to the war that has been escalating in her country, she often trains in pools with roofs that have been blown open thanks to bomb explosions. “Sometimes we couldn’t train because of the war,” she said
The political condition in her country became increasingly unstable and her house was destroyed by the war thus forcing her to make one of the toughest decisions of her life – to flee the country with her sister, Sarah. Both of them would have to travel through Lebanon and Turkey before reaching Greece. Their journey was far from smooth or enjoyable, there were times that they cheated death. The danger that followed their trip reached a peak after their speedboat from Turkey almost capsized.
Just barely 30 minutes into their journey, their motorboat suddenly malfunctioned. The boat that was meant for six passengers was carrying a staggering amount of 20 people. Most of them didn’t have the ability to swim. Mardini, her sister, and two other passengers had no other choice but to jump into the ocean and swim in the Aegean Sea for three excruciating hours until they reached Lesbos.
“I had one hand with the rope attached to the boat as I moved my two legs and one arm. It was three and half hours in cold water. Your body is almost like … done. I don’t know if I can describe that,” she said.
After reaching Lesbos, Mardini continued her journey through Macedonia, Serbia, Hungary and Austria before arriving in Germany. She settled in Berlin along with her family and got in touch with the Wasserfreunde Spandau 04 swimming club and eventually became a member. Her coach, Sven Spannekrebs realized her full potential and capability and considered her for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
Image: Gordon Welters/The New York Times
Luck was definitely on her side when her Olympic dreams came true four years early. She was picked along with other refugees from Syria, South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Ethiopia to represent the first Olympic Refugee Team.
Watch her inspiring journey here:
Yusra also won her butterfly heat but did not qualify to the final round. Regardless of her loss, she’s really excited to participate in the Olympics. “Everything was amazing. It was the only thing I ever wanted was to compete in the Olympics. I had a good feeling in the water. Competing with all these great champions is exciting. I’ve only been back swimming for two years so we’re only now getting back to my levels of before,” she said.
She hopes that her participation will bring a new light to refugees all over the world. "There are a lot of stories about me and a lot of people want to take a picture. This is really good, because it is helping to send our message to the world, and show everyone that refugees can do something. The only things are I know now are that I want to continue swimming and continue supporting refugees,” she said
The Olympian hopes that she will return to Syria one day and share her experience with the people back at home. Yusra’s act of bravery was highly commended and became an inspiration to everyone all over the world. She will surely be one of the athletes to watch in the future.
Majlinda Kelmendi: Kosovo’s Golden Girl
Kosovo was only recently made a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) two years ago. It became an independent country after gaining independence from war-torn Serbia in 2008. And this year, history was made again after they won their first ever Olympic medal. To add icing to the cake, it’s gold.
Two-time world champion Majlinda Kelmendi came to the 2016 Rio Olympics as one of the top favourites in her category. She had previously competed in the London Olympics after choosing to compete for Albania before Kosovo was recognized by the IOC. This was common among Kosovars who wanted to compete in the Olympics. After the recognition, Kelmendi did not want to miss her chance to compete for her country of origin. She was even given the honour to be the flag-bearer during the opening ceremony.
Kelmendi defeated Italy's Odette Giuffrida in the women’s 52kg judo category. She was elated by the win and broke down in tears during the price giving ceremony.
Image: USA Today Sports
"To be honest, I came here for the gold medal, but it's crazy. This is the first time that Kosovo is part of the Olympics, and for the first time, I think gold is huge,” she told the Associated Press.
Kelmendi’s emotional win was something she had longed for a long time ago. "I always wanted to be part of the Olympic Games with the Kosovo flag and the Kosovo anthem," she said. "I had dreamed for this moment for so long and I had refused so many offers, so many millions from other countries (to represent them).
Image: USA Today Sports
IOC president, Thomas Bach made a vow to personally come and present their first medal to whomever wins it during a trip to Kosovo last year. He kept his promise and told her “You remember that you had a dream; now you've realised it. It made me very proud."
Her golden win bears a huge significance to her country. She wants to inspire her nation and make them believe that despite the turmoil that they’ve been through, there’s still hope to achieve what they want in life.
“People, especially kids, in Kosovo look to me as a hero. I just proved to them that even after the war, even after we survived a war, if they want something, they can have it. If they want to be Olympic champions, they can be. Even if we come from a small country, poor country."
We’re pretty sure Kosovo is beaming with pride after Kelmendi’s win and may her success story become a new beacon of hope for her country.