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From Computer Science to Olympic Gold

Hard work and discipline got Ous Mellouli through his undergraduate major and all the way to the Olympics

October 03, 2008 — In his native Tunisia, the press nicknamed him the “Torpedo” or the “Shark of Carthage.” At USC, he’s known simply as “Ous.”

Oussama Mellouli, a 2007 Viterbi School computer science graduate, made history at the 2008 Olympic games when he won the gold medal in the 1500-meter freestyle swimming competition. It was the only medal Tunisia won in Beijing, and only the second gold medal his country has ever earned, 40 years after runner Mohamed Gammoundi won the 5000-meter race in the Mexico City Olympics.
Mellouli At USC Pool
Ous Mellouli practices at the USC pool.   --Photo/ Claudia Melendez

Not surprisingly, Ous has been hailed as a hero in his country, where he was named Grand Officer of the Order of the Republic by President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali a week after his Olympic feat.

“It’s quite humbling,” the smiley, almost giddy athlete said, looking relaxed in his sporty Southern California attire. “The Olympics is definitely the highlight of my career. I came a long way to get this historical gold medal in the toughest event in swimming. It’s very historical for my country: it’s the first ever swimming medal for Tunisia, the second (Gold) ever in all sports… it’s been quite awesome. “

Mellouli enrolled in USC in 2003 after graduating from the Lycee du Rampart in Marseille, France. With an appearance at the 2000 Olympics already under his belt, Ous established himself as a force to be reckoned with in the Trojan swim team.  Although he won several important competitions in the ensuing months, medals eluded him at the 2004 Olympic games in Athens.

“Four years ago I was angry I didn’t get (any medals), and I started building back by focusing on short term goals,” Ous said. First on his mind: completing his undergraduate degree in computer science at the Viterbi School.  In between his daily training — up to five hours a day — the swimmer tried to make sure he didn’t neglect his studies.

“He never asked for any favors, ever,” said associate professor of engineering practice Michael Crowley, who had Mellouli in three of his classes. “I was very impressed by him. He was an engineering student and a top athlete.”

Two years ago, as the Beijing Olympics approached, Ous asked USC’s swimming head coach Dave Salo to train him.

“He had to be more disciplined with my expectations,” Salo said. “My program is more (based) on a daily-basis performance, it’s practicing how you’re going to compete. That’s something that helped him prepare better.”

It was the discipline, the expectations and the rigorous training that put Ous over the top, and he gives Salo a lot of credit for it.

“He’s hands down one of the best coaches in the world,” Ous said. “I’m fortunate to have worked with him for the last couple of years; he has a great program for professional swimmers and college kids trying to reach NCAA  or international goals. His methods are quite revolutionary and we’ve been working well together.”
Ous Mellouli, center, upset Grant Hackett of Australia, left, and is now the second fastest swimmer in the history of the event.  Ryan Cochrane, right, won the bronze.     Photo/Getty Images

Although Ous is pursuing a master’s degree in post-secondary administration and students affairs at the USC Rossier School of Education, he’s taking the fall off. That doesn’t mean he’s resting on his laurels. He’s already returned to the pool to get ready for the Swimming World Cup, which begins Oct. 10 in Brazil and concludes Nov. 16 in Berlin. Then there’s the Swimming World Championship in Rome next year, and then there’s London in 2012.

“I’m planning to keep training, hopefully stay healthy and stay motivated,” Ous said. “Two-thousand-and-twelve is a such long time from now, I can’t speak about it yet,  but it’s definitely in the back of my head.”