2021 Swammy Awards: African Male Swimmer of the Year, Ahmed Hafnaoui

by Ben Dornan 3

December 23rd, 2021 2021 Swammy Awards

To see all of our 2021 Swammy Awards, click here.


Ahmed Hafnaoui entered the year 2021 with a lifetime best of 3:49.90 in the long course 400 freestyle, which he swam in February of 2020. At that point, the 200th fastest performer in history according to FINA was Trenton Julian who swam a 3:49.47 in 2019. That means on December 31, 2020, Hafnaoui was not within the top 200 performers in the event that he would go on to win Olympic gold in July 2021.

Hafnaoui’s first 400 freestyle in 2021 was in May when he posted a 3:47.79 and he was slightly faster the next month with a 3:46.16. That time gave him a 16th-place entry in the event for the Tokyo Games, which would be his debut Olympics for Tunisia.

16th place is a solid position for most events at the Olympics, but the 400 freestyle features only a prelim and a final. That means that you need a top 8 finish right off the bat in order to vie for a spot on the podium. Hafnaoui did just that in the heats and just barely got himself into the final with a 3:45.68. The swim was only 0.14 seconds quicker than the 9th place finisher Antonio Djakovic of Switzerland who posted a 3:45.68.

Had Hafnaoui gone just 0.15 seconds slower than he did in the finals, the historic moment that made headlines would have never happened. Hafnaoui of course went on to place first in the Olympic final from lane 8, shaving more than two seconds off his PB with a 3:43.36. It was a spectacular victory over the likes of Jack McLoughlin from Australia (3:43.52) and Kieran Smith of the USA (3:43.94).

Ahmed Hafnaoui‘s Olympic gold medal swim, which almost never occurred, was one of the swims of the meet and of the year and makes him the standout favorite for this award. Hafnaoui’s only other swim at the Games was the men’s 800 freestyle where he placed 10th overall with a 7:49.14.

After a relatively quiet fall, Hafnaoui returned to the world stage in December to compete in the 2021 World Short Course Swimming Championships. The situation that almost precluded him from the final in Tokyo kept him out of the final at Short Course Worlds. He placed 10th overall in the 400 with a 3:40.30, which was 0.57 seconds slower than 8th place Marco de Tulio of Italy.

Despite missing out on the short course 400 final, Hafnaoui managed to get into the 1500 freestyle final with a 14:25.77. Heading into the final as second seed meant he would be joining the European trio of Mykhailo Romanchuk, Florian Wellbrock, and Gregorio Paltrinieri in the top 4. After the four of them battled it out over the first few laps, Hafnaoui, Wellbrock, and Romanchuk broke off to lead the field.

Ultimately, Wellbrock had the upper hand with a 14:06.88 world record, but Hafnaoui won the battle against Romanchuk (14:11.47) and took silver in a 14:10.94. Hafnaoui’s swim marked a new Tunisian and African record, taking out Ous Mellouili’s 2014 mark of 14:18.79. In addition to slicing nearly 10 seconds off the record, he also set a new African record on the 800 split with a 7:33.69.

Ahmed Hafnaoui looks like one of the shining stars of the future of distance freestyle and a changeup of his training base in the upcoming year will create a potential for a new level of speed. In 2022 Hafanoui will be making the trip to Bloomington to race for Indiana University collegiately, leaving us with much excitement about how he fares in the short course yards pool.

Honorable Mentions

  • Matt Sates (South Africa): Matt Sates had a solid Olympic berth this year, qualifying for the men’s 200 IM semi-final where he finished 14th in a 1:58.75. He also swam the 100 butterfly prelims and placed 32nd with a 52.34. His big swims this year, however, came in the fall. Sates took the FINA World Cup series by storm and reset 3 short course world junior records in a matter of days. Sates swam a 1:40.65 200 freestyle, a 3:37.92 400 freestyle, and a 1:51.45 200 IM. Those electric performances put him on the map in a big way and gave us a preview of his potential when he heads to the University of Georgia in the winter of 2022.
  • Chad le Clos (South Africa): Le Clos won the first 6 of these awards from 2013 to 2018. While he didn’t quite reach his peak this year, le Clos still had a solid 2021. At the Olympic Games, he missed the podium by less than half a second with a 1:54.93 in the final for 5th place overall. He went on to have a solid fall as a member of the ISL-winning Energy Standard but a knee injury at one of the World Cup stops slightly slowed his momentum. Chad le Clos capped his year with a silver medal swim in the 100 fly and bronze in the 200 at the 2021 Short Course World Swimming Championships.
  • Mohamed SamyYoussef ElkamashYoussef Ramadan, and Abdelrahman Sameh (Egypt): This quartet of men had a grand finale to their year when they twice broke the African record in the short course 4×50 medley relay at Short Course Worlds. They had the second-fastest swim in prelims, hitting a 1:33.19. That took out the former continental record of 1:34.30, which was held by Cameron van der Burgh, Chad le Clos, Charl Crous, and Luke Pendock from 2014. They then lowered the mark again in the final with a 1:32.56 to become the fastest relay in African history by nearly 2 seconds. They finished 5th overall and were just 1.04 seconds slower than gold medal-winning Russia.

Past Winners

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1 year ago

I can’t wait for him to become the champion of the world championship next year….
I don’t know the future yet, but I’m expecting him to get a 400m freestyle and a solid position

Reply to  ddd
1 year ago

I think he’ll do something special in the 800 at world champs next year, he’s got the speed (400 olympic champ) and the endurance (just won 1500 World Short course Silver), all the ingredients to be a world champ in the 800 imo.

Last edited 1 year ago by lol
1 year ago

Tatjana was a good story but his is the stuff of literal movies.