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Wednesday, September 20
Slow swimmer has fast goals

SYDNEY, Australia -- OK, so he barely survived his first 100-meter freestyle race. Eric Moussambani is aiming for a medal at the next Olympics, and he has a state-of-the-art bodysuit to help him.

Eric Moussambani
Eric Moussambani's swim made him a celebrity in Sydney.

The most unlikely hero of the Sydney Games picked up the suit Wednesday (Tuesday night ET), a day after he struggled through the preliminary rounds of the 100 free and posted a time more than a minute slower than the top qualifiers.

"The last 15 meters were very difficult," said the 22-year-old from Equatorial Guinea, who brought the crowd cheering to its feet -- even though he looked like he might drown.

"It was a great feeling," Moussambani said.

Moussambani was a wildcard entry in the race, part of a program of swimming's governing body that encourages the sport in countries where it is not traditionally practiced.

He has been swimming only since January and before Tuesday had never raced in a 50-meter pool.

Undeterred by that struggle, he was back in the pool Wednesday with a new weapon -- a sleek bodysuit from its maker, Speedo.

Speedo claims its Fastskin suit improves performance as much as 3 percent, and outfits the powerhouse swimmers from the gold medal-winning U.S. and Australian swim teams.

Cheered on by other swimmers -- mostly city workers doing their lunchtime laps and a few schoolkids -- Moussambani slipped out of a white bathrobe and into the water to model the suit.

It's "very easy. I am going fast," Moussambani told reporters after puffing and splashing his way down the 50-meter pool. Other swimmers clapped and one man even challenged him to a race. Wisely, Moussambani declined.

In his Olympic heat, Moussambani was timed at 1 minute, 52.72 seconds. The fastest qualifier was Pieter van den Hoogenband of the Netherlands at 48.64 seconds.

Did the bodysuit make any difference in his latest swim? That will have to stay a secret until his next race. No one turned on the clock.

Moussambani, who speaks only a few words of English, seemed overwhelmed by his new celebrity.

"It's a bit much for him," a translator said of the media thronging around him.

Moussambani said he spoke to his mother, Lucia Malonga, on the phone earlier Wednesday. Before the swim, she knew nothing about it. Afterward, the phone rang constantly with news crews seeking her son's story.

"I didn't know why he was going to those games," she said from her Malabo home. "My boy went to training -- I think that's what they called it -- every day.

"He would come home all cold and stuffy every day, but he wouldn't leave it. He got more and more interested in swimming. That was good because he already quit soccer, then he quit basketball. Then he started to run and he quit that, too."

Malonga said her son, the oldest of five children, was an unlikely candidate for an Olympic swimming team.

"He didn't use to really care for swimming except for on the beach a bit," she said. "I thought he mostly wanted to see Sydney."

Once he goes home, Moussambani said he wants to go to college, if he can get the money.

He also wants to find "a good coach" to train for the 2004 Olympics -- and win a medal.

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