'I can sometimes feel his hand on my leg' - Burnell's recurring nightmare after Rio

From BBC - July 17, 2017

You may remember Jack Burnell. Rio 2016 left him angry, very angry.

Not since London 2012, when Sir Ben Ainslie famously echoed the iconic Bruce Banner warning - 'you would not like me when I am angry', had we witnessed such pure rage at the Olympics.

"It's absolutely outrageous, ridiculous, a joke," Burnell said at the time.

Like Ainslie, who felt aggrieved about other sailors "ganging up" on him, Burnell's emotional outburst was understandable.

In the swimmer's own words, and that of his coaches, he was "ideally placed" to win the gruelling 10km marathon open-water event at last year's Olympics.

But, in the closing stages, he alleges he was physically hauled back by Tunisia's defending champion Oussama Mellouli. To make matters worse, the Briton was disqualified for lashing out in response.

In a wide-ranging interview with BBC Sport, he explains how security had to escort him away from the Olympic venue before he 'found' the Tunisian, who finished 12th.

Burnell also reveals he experienced depression after the Games and details his recurring nightmares, in which he feels Mellouli's hand dragging him back under the water.

On Tuesday he will attempt to take the first step towards redemption at the World Championships in Budapest, and begin what he hopes will be a period of "sustained domination".

"It's going to be relentless," he tells BBC Sport. "Winning is the only option now at every event, and the Worlds are just the start."

'I would have liked a little word with him'

It takes a special kind of athlete to succeed in the open water - with the 10km event undoubtedly the ultimate test for Olympic swimmers.

In the pool, you have the luxury of your own lane with no athlete able to directly impact how you perform. Marathon swimming is completely different.

"You are being kicked, being scratched and being punched," says Burnell. "On top of that, there's often rubbish, dead animals and live jellyfish to contend with."

An hour and a half of fighting the conditions - and opponents - leaves athletes exhausted and emotional.

After three equally explosive interviews with the Rio 2016 host broadcaster, BBC Sport and BBC Radio 5 live, Burnell went in search of one thing - the man he believed was responsible for his result.

"I tried to find him. I would have liked a little word with him," he says with a wry smile.

"It's probably best I did not and I did get ushered away from the race venue pretty quickly, which on reflection was a really good thing.

"If I had seen him at that point, with the emotions so high, it may have been a recipe for disaster.

"I could have torn anyone's head off that spoke to me about it. Try to picture the lowest of the low - that's where I was at."

Burnell has not seen Mellouli since, and with the Tunisian skipping post-race media interviews and stepping back from social media, he has never responded to the accusations.

'I can sometimes feel his hand on my leg'

If winning Olympic gold is a "dream", then believing you are only moments from achieving that - only to be denied for reasons you believe to be beyond your control - has to be the stuff of nightmares for professional athletes.

Finishing fourth would be heartbreaking enough but Burnell has nothing to show for nearly two hours of fighting - having been disqualified metres from the finish line.

Moments earlier he had been making what seemed a perfectly timed attack for the lead before his progress was halted. Burnell responded by striking out at Mellouli to free his leg.

"Sometimes I forget and I do not think about it for a few days, but then there will just be something that triggers the memory," says the 24-year-old.

'I want to prove what should have been'

'I have more drive than ever'


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