Everyone knows Michael Phelps. Pretty much only swim geeks, and Tunisians, know the story of Ous Mellouli, which is the way it is but not the way it should be. In a perfect world, Mellouli would be celebrated like Phelps. He is charming, funny, good-looking, well-spoken, plain-speaking, at ease in different languages and, as a University of Southern California guy, completely and totally comfortable in celebrity culture.
All of that, and Mellouli, now 29, is one of the most accomplished athletes of our or any time, with a knack for coming up big when the lights are brightest. In winning the open-water five-kilometer swim Sunday at the 2013 world championships in Barcelona, Spain, Mellouli added to his considerable resume with a victory that nobody saw coming.
Maybe -- truth be told -- not even him.
With a final kick evocative of the way that runners in the 5k distance race finish off the race on the track, Mellouli won in 53 minutes, 30.4 seconds, holding off Canada's Eric Hedlin, who finished 1.2 seconds back. Germany's Thomas Lurz, another six-tenths behind, took third.
"You get in that zone and your thoughts get dialed in," Mellouli said Sunday in a phone call. "In that moment, all the other things don't matter. It doesn't matter if you are swimming in mud. You just have to get to the finish first."
The victory closed a circle of sorts.
It was 10 years ago, at the 2003 Barcelona world championships, that Phelps won the 400-meter individual medley. Laszlo Cseh of Hungary took silver in that race. Mellouli took third.
Barcelona 2003 was, in many ways, the meet that announced Phelps to the world. Since then, of course, Phelps has gone on to win 22 Olympic medals, 18 of them gold.
From Tunisia, he went to school in France, then came to USC. There he would connect with coach Dave Salo, who has a remarkable record of helping swimmers -- among them Mellouli, U.S. breaststroker Rebecca Soni and the likely breakout star of the 2013 meet, Russia's Vlad Morozov -- achieve their best.
At the 2004 Games, Mellouli finished fifth in the 400 IM, then turned to longer distances -- which, it would turn out, would prove his calling.
In 2007, at the world championships in Melbourne, Australia, Mellouli came from behind to win the 800; he also earned a silver in the 400. Then, though, his results would be nullified after a positive test for amphetamines. It turned out -- and he has always totally owned up to this -- that he had taken an Adderall pill to finish writing a term paper at USC.
A dumb mistake that any college kid could have made.
Because Mellouli was forthright, authorities reduced his suspension from the usual term, two years, to 18 months.
In retrospect, Mellouli says now, the episode served as a powerful lesson: "I gained perspective and built momentum from it. It was a mistake and cost me my first world title. I came out of it a stronger and better and more professional athlete. I'm actually grateful for it."
At the 2008 Beijing Games, in the 1500 -- the swimming equivalent of a mile -- much of the focus was whether Australia's Grant Hackett, the two-time defending Olympic champ, would become the first man to win the same individual event at three consecutive Games.
Mellouli won the race, in 14:40.84. Hackett took silver, in 14:41.53.
It was Tunisia's first-ever swimming medal.
At the 2012 Games, Mellouli, showing his versatility and range, swam both in the open-water event and in the pool.
The 10k open-water marathon wound through London's Serpentine, in Hyde Park. Mellouli won, in 1:49.55.1; Lurz took silver, 3.4 seconds behind.
In the pool, meanwhile, in the 1500, China's Sun Yang turned in an other-worldly 14:31.02 to win gold. Canada's Ryan Cochrane, who had won bronze in 2008, finished in 14:39.63 to claim silver; Mellouli finished third, in 14:40.31.
That made him the first to win pool and open-water medals at a single Games.
After London, Mellouli took some well-deserved time off. He traveled -- Rio de Janeiro, the Bahamas, Montreal, Hawaii, back to Tunisia, Europe. By his own admission, he gained -- well, 30 pounds.
Thinking he was going to retire, he didn't swim meaningfully for six months.
What makes Sunday's victory all the more astonishing is that he has been training -- really training -- for only eight weeks.
That's right. Eight weeks.
He did a stint at altitude in Colorado with Phelps' coach, Bob Bowman; some time with his Tunisian coaches; some work with Salo; with Catherine Vogt, who also helps train Sunday's 5k women's winner, Haley Anderson; and with Jon Urbanchek, the former University of Michigan head coach, now based in Southern California.
It was, Mellouli said, "something completely different, no structure at all, going by feel," and "everybody really helped out."
He said he intends to race the 10k on Monday. And now Rio and 2016 beckon.
"The coolest thing about it is I really love open water," Mellouli said, adding, "It's a great challenge. That's why you see my reactions at the end -- it's a scream of a mixture of just rage and just happiness and everything.
"It tests you. You get tested mentally and physically and everything. To be part of it, helping the sport grow and giving the sport credibility and now making a name for myself in the open-water world, I see the sport growing year by year -- I take a lot of pride in that, for sure."
Mellouli finished third in Monday's 10k.
Greece's Spyridon Gianniotis, the Shanghai 2011 world champion in the 10k, repeated in Barcelona, winning in 1 hour, 49 minutes and 11.8 seconds. He had finished fourth at last summer's London Games.
Lurz took second, in 1:49:14.5. Mellouli's third-place time: 1:49.19.2.