Ethiopian swimmer Robel Kiros Habte may not be a champion — he may not even be close — but to many Olympics viewers, he has become an unlikely hero. The 24-year-old has been taunted on social media, where he has been dubbed “Robel the Whale,” thanks to his burly midsection and snail’s-pace swimming skills. But plenty of people love an underdog, so Habte has also collected a strong fan base.
The determined Olympian splashed his way to glory in 1 minute 4.95 seconds, according to the Daily Mail, finishing 59th out of 59 swimmers in the men’s 100-meter freestyle heats. Twitter users were quick to point out the difference between Habte’s not-so-athletic physique and the well-chiseled bodies of the other competitors.
“How in the world did this Ethiopian swimmer [Robel Habte] qualify for the Olympics? Overweight & embarrassingly slow,” tweeted one viewer. Another called him “the greatest chubby swimmer in the Olympics,” and a third noted that Habte was “so slow he slipped off the screen.”
I love that we now live in a world where Beer Belly Olympians exist #RobelKirosHabte
— Rebecca Araya (@beckonsss) August 10, 2016
But droves of social media users were inspired by Habte’s dogged determination — Ethiopia produces powerful runners but not many swimmers, and he had never even swum in an Olympic-size pool. “Everybody, every day you wake up in Ethiopia, you run. Not swimming. But I didn’t want to run, I wanted to be a swimmer,” Habte said in a post-race television interview. “I wanted to do something different. The athlete’s supportive fans quickly rose to his defense, shutting down the naysayers and body-shamers.
Robel Kiros Habte wanted to do something different for his country at the Olympics.More power to you Robel !!????????????????????????????????
— Dem Man (@MandemOfficial) August 10, 2016
Robel Kiros Habte is a legend. I love this Olympian #RioOlympics2016
— Calvin Serrao (@CalvinSerrao_) August 10, 2016
#RobelKirosHabte Congratulations Robel on your swim. Never mind the nasty trolls sport is about doing it, not winning or losing.
— chris (@christopherholt) August 11, 2016
— Emily Pinckard (@epincks) August 11, 2016
Little did anyone know that Habte had a very legitimate reason for being out of shape: He is still recovering from a car accident that left him sedentary for two months. During that time, he packed on 99 pounds, according to the Daily Mail. He has already lost a lot of the weight, but he couldn’t shed it all in time for the Rio Games, and he wasn’t letting the aftermath of the accident get in the way of his chance to be an Olympian.
But now the swimmer — who had previously said, “It didn’t matter where I finished,” after completing the competition but coming in last place — tells the publication he has been traumatized by the onslaught of online bullying. “It has been difficult. Too difficult. I don’t know how I feel, but many things. Some of the things people have said or written are not nice,” he said, according to the Daily Mail.
“I am a nice person; I would not say these things about others. They have used dirty language against me and called me fat and a big man and a whale.” Heartbreakingly, he told the Daily Mail that he’s had to take a break from Facebook and Twitter because the comments have been so hurtful. That said, he seems determined not to let the taunting deter him. “I know my body is fat, but I will lose the weight and when I go to Canada for the World Championships … I will show them,” he was quoted as saying.
It’s worth noting that despite Habte’s grit and sportsmanship — and regardless of his fitness or skill — some people feel he had an unfair advantage in securing a spot in the Olympics. His father is the president of Ethiopa’s swimming federation, according to the Washington Post, prompting accusations of nepotism.
There’s no question that Habte is driven, though, and he seems pretty humble to boot. According to the Daily Mail, he doesn’t have a coach, yet he trains twice a day, six days a week, skipping Sundays. He hopes to one day coach future swimmers.
And regardless of the humiliation he has endured at the hands of cruel commenters, Habte is happy that he was able to represent his country and make his family proud — his mission of making it to the Olympics has been accomplished, after all. “I am proud of that fact,” he said of making it to Rio. “I love sport. I love swimming and that is why I came here.”