Dawn Prowse helped teach Eric 'the eel' Moussambani to swim for the Sydney 2000 Olympics

Meet the woman who helped 'Eric the eel' to Olympic fame

Eric Moussambani was one of the feelgood stories of the Sydney 2000 Olympics. Eric the eel, remember him?

Hailing from Equatorial Guinea, Moussambani laboured through a heat of the 100m freestyle, clocking 1.52.72, by far the slowest time in Olympic history. His performance and background story captured world headlines as he achieved celebrity status.

Dawn Prowse spent more than 60 years teaching people to swim. A volunteer poolside during the Olympics, Dawn was one of a group of fellow swimming instructors who worked with Moussambani in the fortnight leading into the swimming program, to ensure he could finish the event.

Or at least not drown.

"Just before the Olympics started I was assigned to Blacktown Pool, because the Aquatic Centre wasn't opened,'' she explained.

"I was supervising the training there for the visiting countries. This was a great opportunity to meet different people.''

All the swimmers were finely tuned athletes hoping to push for gold when the program started. All except Eric Moussambani.

"I don't know how he came into the Olympics. Because Eric couldn't swim,'' Dawn said. "He could float. But he couldn't swim.''

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So Dawn and others took on the task of teaching Eric the rudiments of freestyle. All this just days before the Olympics were due to start. At that point he hadn't even been in an 50 metre pool.

"When I was off duty I'd show him a few tricks, like diving, entry and exit. And how to breath, because he couldn't breath with his head down,'' she said.

Moussambani's grasp of English was limited. Likewise Dawn wasn't particularly fluent in Equatorial Guinean.

"But I have four sons,'' Dawn smiled.

Great memories: Dawn Prowse looks over her scrapbook from the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

Great memories: Dawn Prowse looks over her scrapbook from the Sydney 2000 Olympics.

"So I'm pretty good with sign language. I managed to get across what I wanted him to do, although he had no idea with diving or any of the skills he needed.''

Dawn was working at the Aquatic Centre on September 19 for Moussambani's heat. She admits to being 'a little bit nervous' as he stood on the blocks.

"I didn't think he'd make it,'' she said.

"But he did. I felt really proud when he finished. But we (Dawn and her fellow instructors) can't take any credit for what he did. It was all Eric's own work.

"He was tickled pink when it over. There he was, basically a non-swimmer, competing at the Olympics.''

Dawn hasn't kept contact with her most famous pupil in the years since.

"I've read various stories about him, but no, I haven't had any personal contact,'' she said.

Moussambani stayed with the sport and in March 2012 he was appointed coach of the national swimming squad of Equatorial Guinea. He was featured in a Sydney Morning Herald series on the 2000 Olympics last month.

Magical fortnight

Dawn said that magical fortnight in 2000 still holds many great memories.

"It was hard work though,'' she quickly added.

The days started at 6am and officials could be still at the centre at 1am the following morning. Dawn was staying with a son at Woy Woy, so she'd head home, grab some sleep and then race back to the pool.

Ian Thorpe, Suzie O'Neill, Grant Hackett, Pieter van den Hoogenband from the Netherlands, Michael Klim ... she saw them all in action and was there for the events where the Australians won a medal of any colour.

"I stopped Ian Thorpe from going to the toilet once,'' she laughed.

"It was just before a race. He going into the toilet that was designated for visitors and I told him he couldn't. He said 'I've gotta go.'

"I said that there was a toilet for the competitors but he replied that it was 100 metres away and that he wouldn't make it.''

While it might seem a trivial thing, Thorpe may have faced disciplinary action for being in a non-designated area if caught, even if it was something of an emergency.

So Dawn was proactive and stood guard at the gate as Thorpe did what he had to do. Thorpe won three gold and two silver medals and Watching him dominate the pool, Dawn said, was 'special.'

But it wasn't all about swimming.

Dawn takes part in the Olympic Torch Relay in Taree on August 26, 2000.

Dawn takes part in the Olympic Torch Relay in Taree on August 26, 2000.

"I also made great friendships with the people I worked with from here and overseas,'' Dawn said. "And I had my favourites (competitors). My favourites weren't always the winners.''

Dawn had earlier run in the Olympic Torch Relay in Taree and when the swimming program was completed she was given tickets to attend the athletics. The Olympic experience, she said, was 'unbelievable'

But it wasn't her last, as Dawn volunteered for the Athens Olympics in 2004.

"Athens was wonderful too,'' she said. "But not as good as Sydney. Nothing will beat that.''

This story Meet the woman who helped 'Eric the eel' to Olympic fame first appeared on Manning River Times.