Oussama Mellouli
Interview by Ania Tarazi
Category: Interview

Volume 4 | Targeted Topic - Aquatic Sports | 2015
Volume 4 - Targeted Topic - Aquatic Sports

– Interview by Ania Tarazi


Few athletes can claim to be truly versatile within their sport. It is difficult to imagine a track runner who is also capable of winning a marathon, but this is exactly what Tunisian swimmer Oussama Mellouli has achieved. Many swimmers compete in different strokes, but Mellouli has excelled in both the pool and long distance open water events. At the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, he won gold in the 1500m freestyle to become the first African man to win an individual Olympic swimming event and his country’s only medalist at the games. Four years later he claimed gold in the 10km marathon and bronze in the 1500m freestyle at the London Olympic Games. In doing so, he became the first swimmer to win Olympic golds in pool and open water events, as well as the first swimmer to medal in these two disciplines at the same Olympic Games. More astonishing was the fact that his golden 10km performance in the Serpentine Lake in London’s Hyde Park was only the third time he had ever raced competitively at that distance. Mellouli’s fervour for swimming goes beyond his own performance, as he has plans to open a swimming academy in Doha to teach children to swim as well as coach talented young swimmers. He has fond memories of the city following a 15 gold medal haul there at the 2011 Pan Arab Games.


You won Olympic golds in 1500m and 10km freestyle, what are the differences between swimming in the pool and open water races?

Pool swimming and open water swimming should be considered two different sports, that’s how different I think they are. I enjoy doing both. There is obviously a huge difference just in terms of distance and race time: the 1500m lasts 15 minutes, whilst the 10km is a 2-hour effort. Open water has a lot of different factors that come into play, such as being thrown in the water with 20 other athletes – there's a lot of physicality. Also, there’s a circuit, it’s not just going up and down the pool following the blue tiles. I enjoy racing in open water, I consider myself a rookie in the sport and find it to be gutsy type of race with a lot of strategy and tactics that come into play. It’s usually much more relaxed and a fun atmosphere. I enjoy going to places like Cancun (Mexico) and Setubal (Portugal) – the venues are a lot of fun so I’ve enjoyed doing the 10km. I think it has helped to rejuvenate my career and given me a new challenge at the age of 30. In London I became the first swimmer to win a medal in both the pool and open water, I want to keep that combination alive. I’m setting a new trend and really enjoying the challenge. I’m pushing towards my fifth Olympics to hopefully win a couple more medals.


Which is more challenging?

The 10km by far. I remember in London, after I was done, the first thing I wanted to do was celebrate and just have fun, but then I threw up waiting for the medal ceremony, that’s how tough it was.


Can you explain the difference in training for these two events?

I didn’t change anything in my training. The only thing that required more knowledge and preparation was the feeds – it’s a 2-hour marathon so you have to feed. There is a feeding pontoon in the circuit so we put a lot of thought into my feeds and experimented a little. I also try to compete 2 to 3 times a year, do a couple of races and try to see where the competition is at. I know a lot of swimmers train out in open water and enjoy doing sessions in the ocean, but I do 100% of my training in the pool .


How do you adjust your diet for open water swims?

My diet is not specific for open water. I try to stick to a target weight of 87kgs, I feel best under 90kgs, but in the pool I like to perform at 87kgs. Over the past couple of years I have started eating five meals a day rather than three and avoiding the mistake of having a huge meal after training or late at 8pm or 9pm, I’m trying to break old habits. It pays a lot of dividends, especially at this age, I came to terms with the fact that I need to fine tune my training if I want to push the age barrier and nutrition really comes into play.


Can you describe an average week as an endurance athlete?

In training, I cover an average of 80km a week. If we crank it up, that probably goes up to around 100km. That’s just in the water, dry land and weight training takes up around 3 to 5 hours per week


How important are planning and tactics in distance swimming and how do you mentally prepare for a race – do you have any pre-race rituals?

As far as tactics go, in open water swimming, I like to negative split it, meaning the second half is faster than the first half. The basic strategy for open water is to save enough energy for that last push (the last kilometre). In the pool, when I'm racing 1500m, it depends - in Beijing I kept it smooth and long and made a push at the 1100m mark, whereas in Doha at the 2014 World Championships I was in lane 1 and just went for it. It depends on the race and where you are in the pool. In terms of rituals I listen to something up-beat and positive before the race.


What is your recovery process after a race?

Usually, I warm down after each race for at least half an hour and get massage a couple of hours after that.


Do long distance swimmers encounter different injuries to those competing at shorter distances? Are overuse injuries more common for distance swimmers?

Overuse injuries are huge for swimmers in general. Personally, I’ve struggled with a few injuries throughout my career like lower back and shoulder injuries. Pain becomes part of the routine to manage injuries and deficiencies in your body. Being mentally tough helps, plus you need to keep up with any medical treatments and stick to your physical therapy routines.


What are the most common injuries distance swimmers encounter?

Shoulder injuries, rotator cuff weakness injuries, shoulder tendinitis injuries – it’s called the swimmer’s shoulder.


What is the worst injury you have had in your career?

I’m dealing with this funky one at the moment – we’re trying to crack pandoras box with it – flaring ribs, we’re still trying to figure out what’s going on. Other than that, I’ve had a rotator cuff tear that’s hindered my preparation for a few seasons. I lost power in my pull and stroke so I’d say rotator cuff instability is the worst.


Who makes up your medical team?

I’ve been fortunate to work with a lot of great doctors and physios. In the last 3 years I have explored different things with each doctor to come up with the best plan; once we plateau we move on and then come back – it’s not one fixed team. I’m not fortunate enough to have a 'one-stop shop' facility like Aspetar, it’s very different in Los Angeles, we have a solid network and keep track with a few different doctors. They are a huge part of my preparation, I’m really grateful to have their support.


What qualities do you consider most important in medical staff working with athletes?

I think it’s very important to develop a personal relationship with your physician. Working toward a common goal is hugely important. Someone that works toward your goals and cares about your performance. It becomes more like a partnership than the average patient – more than a patient-physician relationship.


The 2014 short course World Championships here in Doha were something of a comeback for you, as you had planned to retire after the 2012 Olympic Games in London. What made you decide to carry on competing?

Definitely a comeback in the pool, I didn’t get a medal in the 1500m at the 2013 long course world championships in Barcelona, so to come back and win a silver medal in the 1500m and beat my time by 6 seconds, 4 years after my gold in Dubai is great and I’m definitely optimistic about the future. I took 6 months off after London, believe it or not I was 20kgs overweight – 110 kgs! I got back in the water, felt good and got back in my routine, there was no pressure really.


Barcelona 2013 was going to be my 10th anniversary, the first time I competed at a world championships was Barcelona 2003, so I thought why not give it a shot? I trained seriously for 4 months and surprised myself by winning gold in 5km open water and bronze in the 10km. It was great to see what I could do in a short period of time and I decided to carry on.


You were the first male swimmer from the MENA region to win an individual Olympic Gold what do you think of the progress of swimming in the region?

The attention on swimming is very new to this part of the world, there’s no established tradition in terms of swimming, coaching or academies. I think the political will and the support from federations is amazing. Qatar is leading the charge towards developing new talents in the sport, the infrastructure development in comparison to Tunisia is outstanding, pools here are spectacular. Pools in Doha and in Dubai are great examples and everyone who visits Qatar is impressed by the facilities. This is a huge base to push the sports to the next level. Now it’s a matter of finding that talent and taking care of it.


You have plans to set up a swimming academy here in Qatar in association with the Qatar Olympic and Swimming associations. What are your aims for this project?

I’m very excited and grateful for the project. We look forward to getting people excited about the sport. It is not only performance driven but also water safety-driven. A lot of people lose their lives because of drowning. If we can provide an environment where parents can give their kids the gift of swimming and learning water safety, I think I would have accomplished a goal of mine that goes beyond the medals and glory of sports, but towards something that will provide people comfort and safety and a potentially lifesaving skill. That is the main goal of the academy. I would also like to see young talents in the academy pushed towards the elite level and even have their own Olympic dream.


In swimming, how much of success comes from natural talent and how much is down to hard work?

This is a debate which applies to everything, not just sports. People say that there are natural born leaders and people who learned to become leaders. I personally think that I was blessed with talent, which is key and would be ungrateful to deny. But while talent is key, work would beat talent any day if that talent doesn’t work hard. So it’s a combination.


Swimming championships take you all over the world, is the travelling difficult and can it affect your performance?

If you’re not careful it can, I had an 11-hour flight from my base in Los Angeles and had to come to Doha 10 days before the championships started, so I could get adjusted to the time zone and get ready for my races. Travel is fun, as you get to see the world, places that I wouldn’t get the chance to see if I wasn’t a swimmer at this level. It’s something that you have to manage, but if you do that correctly I don’t think it comes as a huge hindrance to your performance.


Ania Tarazi


Image by Tarek MRAD


Volume 4 | Targeted Topic - Aquatic Sports | 2015
Volume 4 - Targeted Topic - Aquatic Sports

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