Africa’s best Olympian dives in for the last time

The Hamilton Spectator - - SPORTS - ENOCK MUCH­INJO

HARARE, ZIM­BABWE — The African with the most Olympic medals is one of the great dis­tance run­ners from Kenya or Ethiopia, right? Nope. It’s a swimmer from Zim­babwe. Like Michael Phelps, Kirsty Coven­try is go­ing to the Olympics for the fifth and fi­nal time, and she’s swim­ming for one more lit­tle slice of his­tory in the Rio de Janeiro pool.

Phelps has the all-time Olympic record with his medal haul of 22, but Coven­try needs one more podium fin­ish at her last Olympics to be the first fe­male swimmer to win eight in­di­vid­ual medals.

It’s not an ar­bi­trary stat. It un­der­lines how Coven­try, from a south­ern African na­tion with very lit­tle Olympic suc­cess (apart from hers, that is) has done it all by her­self. No help from re­lay team­mates to boost that medal count.

Zim­babwe has won eight medals in to­tal at the Olympics, and seven of them have been pro­vided by Coven­try, the two-time gold medal­list in the 200-me­tre back­stroke. The coun­try’s only other medal is a women’s field hockey gold won dur­ing the boy­cotted 1980 Games in Moscow.

She’s al­ready Africa’s best at the Olympics. As for the other mark, Coven­try is level on seven in­di­vid­ual swim­ming medals with Hun­gary’s Krisztina Eger­szegi. Rio is the last chance to edge ahead of Eger­szegi. Coven­try is 32, on her way out, knows it, and can make light of it.

Who’s the swimmer to watch at the Rio Games? “Me!” she re­sponded. Jok­ing. “In all se­ri­ous­ness the field of swim­mers is so strong right now, it’s crazy,” Coven­try wrote in an email ex­change. “I re­mem­ber say­ing how strong it was in Lon­don (in 2012), but Rio will be even more so.”

Of them all, Coven­try rates Americans Camille Adams and Katie Ledecky high­est.

“Camille Adams ... she will get you out of your chairs when she is rac­ing. And then there is Katie Ledecky. She will blow your mind. They are the whole pack­age: hard work­ing, com­pet­i­tive, con­fi­dent, tal­ented, beau­ti­ful and filled with pos­i­tive en­ergy and kind­ness.”

Coven­try’s been pretty good, too, ba­si­cally rep­re­sent­ing her coun­try at the Olympics sin­gle-hand­edly over the last 16 years, and end­ing up with more Olympic medals than any other African ath­lete. In the pool, too, not on the run­ning track, nor­mally the most fer­tile ground for African ath­letes.

“Mak­ing the Olympic team is a huge ac­com­plish­ment, go­ing to five Olympics is in­cred­i­ble,” she wrote. “But win­ning this num­ber of medals in a sport that is not strong in Africa is un­be­liev­able.”

Like Phelps, she made her Olympic de­but as a teenager in Syd­ney in 2000. And they’ll fin­ish at the same time. In Rio, Coven­try will fo­cus on her favourite race and the one that’s brought her two Olympic golds, the 200 back­stroke. She’s also qual­i­fied in the 100 back­stroke and 200 in­di­vid­ual med­ley.

Is there one more medal in there some­where? It’ll be tough. She didn’t man­age to get on the podium in Lon­don four years ago.

Coven­try grew up around swim­ming and the Olympics. She re­mem­bers watch­ing the 1992 Games in Barcelona, Spain, on TV and telling her par­ents she wanted to go to the Olympics. She went to the Syd­ney Olympics while still in high school. She broke through in Athens with the first of her back-to-back Olympic ti­tles. She went to Auburn Univer­sity in Al­abama, win­ning NCAA swim­ming cham­pi­onships while she stud­ied. She was des­per­ately grate­ful for an Olympic schol­ar­ship that helped her pre­pare for Bei­jing. She also broke the world records in the 100 and the 200 back­stroke.

Makes sense, then, that she stays around sport and the Olympic move­ment. Coven­try is now a mem­ber of the In­ter­na­tional Olympic Com­mit­tee and serves on the IOC and World Anti-Dop­ing Agency’s ath­letes’ com­mis­sions. She has clear opin­ions on the big is­sues af­fect­ing the Olympics right now.

On the Rus­sian dop­ing scan­dal, Coven­try said: “This is a huge em­bar­rass­ment for Rus­sia and the Rus­sian au­thor­i­ties are re­spon­si­ble ... there is a higher level of dis­hon­esty at play. This is a warn­ing to any coun­try, coach, par­ent and ath­lete that is dop­ing or con­sid­er­ing dop­ing: it does not mat­ter who you are and it may not hap­pen to­day, but you will get caught, and you will be­come an em­bar­rass­ment to your friends and fam­ily.”

And on the Zika virus and the prob­lems it has pre­sented for the Rio Olympics, Coven­try said she never once con­sid­ered skip­ping the games. “Brazil are go­ing to put on a great show. It’s go­ing to be an awe­some Olympics with some out­stand­ing per­for­mances and I can’t wait to get there.”

Onto the last Olympics for Africa’s best Olympian and, ide­ally, one last medal. But if not, no big deal. “It’s al­ways been about a de­sire to make the Olympic team and rep­re­sent my coun­try,” Coven­try said.


Zim­babwe’s Kirsty Coven­try has beenAfrica’s best Olympic per­former for years. The swimmer has­won seven medals and has no con­cerns about Rio,say­ing it will be great.

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