Swimming under the warm sun of a perfect English day, amid the ducks and swans of the Serpentine, Oussama Mellouli held back to conserve energy before his late attack – his trademark move.
It worked, and the Tunisian became the first 2012 Olympic gold winner from an Arab Spring country.
Ous, as he is known, raised his arm, swung his fist down to his heart and kissed the medal as he stood on the podium next to the man-made lake in Hyde Park, where the painful 10-kilometre swimming marathon took place.
“We’ve been going through some tough times,” he said. “So, hopefully, when [Tunisians] turn on the TV and see their countrymen succeed today, here in London at the Olympic Games, the first gold medal for Arab nations, I hope it will give them hope and joy.”
Indeed, joy it gave them.
“Everyone is so happy for him,” said Asma Ghribi, a young journalist in Tunis who works for the Tunisialive news site. “It gives us a sense of pride. It’s the first Arab Spring gold medal and it’s a sign of hope for us.”
Mellouli, 28, was always near the front of the pack during Friday’s race, but rarely led it. He broke free in the last lap, crossing the finish in a sprint that put his winning time at 1 hour 49 minutes 55 seconds.
Germany’s Thomas Lurz took silver, finishing 3.4 seconds behind, and Richard Weinberger of Canada claimed bronze.
Mellouli’s victory makes him the first athlete to win gold in both open water and pool competitions.
In Beijing, he took gold in the 1,500-metres freestyle. In London, he was unable to defend that title, finishing third.
Fawzi Rihane, a Tunisian United Nations official, said the country needed Mellouli’s victory.
In the last year and a half, the country has gone through a revolution that launched the Arab Spring and a severe recession. Now, there are fears the Islamist government will roll back some of the freedoms Tunisians fought for. Some 300 people died in the revolution.
“It’s gloom and doom in this country,” Rihane said Friday. “Tunisia needed something positive, something to trigger a sense of pride, that Tunisia is a country worth fighting for.”
In an interview with The Globe and Mail in Rome last June, Mellouli, who attends the University of Southern California, said he was well-aware of the hardship in his country.
“We want our message to be that, even in these tough days, we can be successful in achieving important things on an international level.”
Mellouli was nervous before coming to London. He was suffering from shoulder injuries and had no experience in swimming in cold water. The Serpentine was 21 C and he is used to swimming in 26 C or so in open water competitions.
But he wanted to end his Olympic career with a bang – and gave the Serpentine endurance race his all in a brilliant piece of strategic swimming.
While Mellouli hoped to thrill all of Tunisia with the Olympic gold, his mother, Khadija, a former school teacher, was close to his thoughts. She has always been his inspiration and, later, turned into his swimming manager.
She’s the one who insisted he learn to swim, for safety reasons, even though she couldn’t herself.
Khadija was in the Serpentine stands Friday, waving a small Tunisian flag, as her boy crossed the finish line.
Those swimming lessons sure paid off.