'Sculling Sloth' back on water at London Olympics

Updated: July 31, 2012, 11:15 AM ET
Associated Press

WINDSOR, England -- The "Sculling Sloth" is getting even slower.

Hamadou Djibo Issaka, the Niger rower at the London Olympics despite only three months of experience in the sport, competed again Tuesday at Dorney Lake.

He crossed the finish line with his boat almost at a standstill.

Djibo Issaka captivated the crowds over the weekend with show-stopping turns in the heats and the repechage of the single sculls, when he finished out of breath -- and nearly two minutes behind the winners.

Complete with the warmest of smiles and extraordinary spirit, Djibo Issaka pushed his body to the limit in a lower qualification race this time. His mark of 9 minutes, 7.99 seconds for the 2,000-meter course was the slowest of his three races at the regatta by 28 seconds.

Wearing a yellow T-shirt underneath his orange-and-green Niger jersey, he was given a rousing reception as he passed the main grandstands 300 meters from the line.

"Give him a big cheer for plowing on," the announcer said.

Like on Sunday, he bent over as soon as he crossed the line, taking deep breaths.

"I am very happy because this is my first time at an Olympics," the 35-year-old Djibo Issaka said. "It's not easy for me to be here. I don't have any technique. I've been learning only three months. But with the time and the years, I'll get the technique."

Reporters scurried in their droves to catch a word with a man who has captured the imagination of spectators and the media, earning him nicknames "Issaka the Otter" and "Hamadou The Keel," among others.

His displays on Dorney Lake have brought back memories of Eric "The Eel" Moussambani, the Equatorial Guinea swimmer who memorably splashed his way through a 100-meter freestyle heat at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.

Djibo Issaka learned the basics of rowing in a wooden fishing boat in his home city of Niamey, the Niger capital where he lives with his two kids. Niger is landlocked, 80 percent desert and has few rivers. Rowing clubs? What rowing clubs.

"Before this week, I hadn't been in a (professional sculling) boat before," he said. "There aren't these kind of boats in Africa."

He swam at a competitive level over distances of 50 and 100 meters in Niger but turned to rowing when the Niger Swimming Federation sent him to Egypt to try it out. He received a wild card for the Olympics from the IOC Tripartite Commission, which allows each National Olympic Committee to enter up to five athletes for the Summer Games.

At the start of a two-week camp last November, he took the first step of his new career by climbing into a vessel -- and promptly toppling out of it.

"I fell out," he said, chuckling. "But as a swimmer, that wasn't a problem."

When he isn't learning to row, he earns a living gardening and working at a children's swimming pool.

Strengthened on a breakfast of chicken and beef, he took to the water Tuesday and was given a huge cheer by the packed grandstands when his name was read before the race.

Rowing against competitors from El Salvador, Hong Kong and Peru, Djibo Issaka quickly fell behind. "It's going to be hard for the Niger athlete to come back now," remarked the announcer at the 500-meter mark.

By the time Sau Wah So of Hong Kong crossed the line to win the race, Djibo Issaka still had 300 meters left, but the ovation he received was tremendous.

"I am very happy because they encouraged me and helped me finish. It's all about courage," he said.

It's not the last we'll see of him at the Olympics.

First, he will return on Friday for the "F" final against Aymen Mejri of Tunisia and Paul Etia Ndoumbe, who both finished in under 8 minutes in their races Tuesday.

But his longer-term goal is to compete at the Rio Olympics in 2016.

"I'm getting ready for it," he said. "I hope to train in Niger. Maybe new boats will be there now so I will be able to do it."

Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index