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Tunisian swimmer makes history with open water win

Harvard’s Alex Meyer (right) Australia’s Ky Hurst was in medal contention but swam into trouble halfway through the race, finishing 10th.

Kirsty Wigglesworth/Associated Press

Harvard’s Alex Meyer (right) Australia’s Ky Hurst was in medal contention but swam into trouble halfway through the race, finishing 10th.

LONDON — Alex Meyer was in medal position halfway through this 6-mile aquatic mix-master — and then a rugby scrum broke out at the feeding station in the middle of The Serpentine on Friday afternoon. “I just got like totally pummeled,” said the 24-year-old Harvard grad, who’d prepped for his day on this 18th-century artificial lake by swimming solo laps at Walden Pond, Thoreau’s old bathtub.

Thus did his medal chances ebb away as Meyer dropped to 12th at the end of the fourth of six laps in the 10-kilometer open swim, 10 seconds off the pace. “I just kind of fell off the wagon a little bit,” said Meyer after he’d finished 10th. “I didn’t really have that extra little bit of magic to bring it home the last 5k.”

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The day belonged to a chlorinated dude, Tunisian pool swimmer Oussama Mellouli, who’d won bronze in the 1,500 meters last Saturday and cruised around the loop course inside Henry VIIIth’s old hunting grounds as though he was splashing through a weekday workout in the distance lane. “What happened today was a miracle, if you believe in miracles,” said the 28-year-old Southern Cal grad, who’s the first swimmer to win Olympic medals in both the pool and open water.

Mellouli, who came back from a doping suspension to win the Beijing gold in the metric mile, had battled a bum shoulder for three years. “Only those close to me know how much I struggled to get here today,” said Mellouli, who had to win a June qualifying race in Portugal to earn his spot. Meyer had been through an ordeal as well after falling off a bike and breaking his collarbone in January and missing two months of training. “My shoulder’s fine,” he said. “I don’t want to make any excuses.”

After teammate Haley Anderson had claimed the silver on Thursday, missing gold by four-10ths of a second behind Hungary’s Eva Risztov, the Americans figured to have a decent shot at two medals. While Meyer’s better event is the 25-kilometer grinder, where he won the global title two years ago, he was fourth in this race at last year’s world championships, earning his ticket here.

Had Fran Crippen, Meyer’s buddy and mentor, not died amid brutally hot conditions in a race in the United Arab Emirates in October 2010, he likely would have been racing here. So Meyer dedicated his race to Crippen and after the first third he was nicely positioned. That’s when the hurly-burly began. “It was an extremely physical race,” testified Canada’s Richard Weinberger, who collected the bronze behind Germany’s Thomas Lurz, who was third in 2008. . “That’s why I avoided being in the pack and I tried to be on the outside or up in the front with Mellouli.”

Meyer got caught up in the knockaround at the feeding station, and paid dearly for it. “I probably could have done a better job of keeping my head up going into that one and not running into people,” he conceded., reckoning that it cost him at least 10 seconds.

Going into the final loop, Meyer was 14th, more than half a minute behind Mellouli, who had open water on the field. “I was battling some pretty negative thoughts on the last lap and trying to keep them subdued,” Meyer said. “I just didn’t have it at the end.”

Though Mellouli won by more than three seconds in 1 hour, 49 minutes, 55.1 seconds, he suffered greatly for his second gold. “That was hell,” he said. “There is no other way to describe it . . . my whole system was in shock for the last five minutes.” Meyer, who was legendary among his Crimson teammates for his tolerance for physical and psychological torment, hung in and pulled himself up four places. His first thought upon emerging from the water? “I was just wondering who won,” Meyer said.

It was a day when Greek world champion Spyridon Gianniotis finished out of the medals and the victor proved that an indoor guy accustomed to swimming between the lines could win an outdoor free-for-all. “Over the course of two hours, a lot can happen,” mused US coach Tim Murphy, who mentored Meyer at Blodgett Pool. “And it did.”

John Powers can be reached at jpowers@globe.com.
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