Equatorial Guinea Swimmers Take Their Time

S Y D N E Y, Australia, Sept. 22, 2000 -- If nothing else, the swim team from

Equatorial Guinea is consistent.

Following in the charmingly inept wake left by “Eric the Eel,” supermarket cashier Paula Barila took more than a minute to make it 50 meters in the Olympic pool.

“I was hurting but the crowd pushed me on,” the 20-year-old Barila said.

She dog paddled to a time of 1 minute, 3.97 seconds, drawing a rousing ovation when she finally touched the wall 39.51 behind top qualifier and world record holder Inge de Bruijn of the Netherlands.

Barila was last out of 73 swimmers who completed the swim — and 28.18 away from the next-slowest competitor. There was a name below her in the final standings, as 12-year-old Fatema A Hameed Gerashi of Bahrain, another wild-card entry, was disqualified for a false start.

‘Wonderful Spirit’

FINA, the world governing body of swimming, invited a handful of countries to send competitors who didn’t meet qualifying standards, part of an effort to popularize swimming in nontraditional nations.

Equatorial Guinea formed its swimming federation less than a year ago and sent a team to Sydney even though it has only two pools — both at hotels and less than half the Olympic-sized length.

Eric Moussambani, a 22-year-old student dubbed “Eric the Eel,” became an international celebrity Tuesday after needing almost two minutes to complete the 100 freestyle. He never put his head underwater and virtually came to a stop with 10 meters to go before finally making it to the wall.

Barila, who apparently took lessons at the same place, dove in with a psuedo-belly flop and was on her way, her head never venturing below the surface. Her strokes showed some knack for competitive swimming in the early stages, but degenerated into a dog paddle by the end.

“I think it’s a wonderful spirit,” said Derrick Samuel Heywood, who volunteered to serve as attache for the country’s fledgling Olympic program because he spoke Spanish. “It epitomizes the feeling of the Olympics. They’re trying to do their best.”

First Time in an Olympic Pool

Barila swam in a store-bought blue swimsuit, a borrowed pair of goggles and a “Sydney 2000” cap scrounged from a sympathetic pool worker.

Swimming wasn’t her first love, obviously.

“I wanted to be an air hostess or an actress,” Barila said. “Actually, I play [soccer], and then I heard about swimming. It’s good to participate in sports.”

Moussambani cheered for his countrywoman from the deck.

“She really did good,” he said. “She never swam in a pool like that before.”

While most people in Equatorial Guinea live near the ocean, there are few competitive swimmers in the west African nation, which is slightly larger than Maryland with a population of 400,000.