When Kirsty Coventry was nine years old, she told her parents, in humble Harare, she would win gold at the Olympics. Twenty three years later, the Zimbabwean is the most successful African Olympian and is preparing for her fifth Olympic Games; and she wants more.
“I have been waking up every morning before sunrise to train since I was six years old,” says the 32-year-old from her base in North Carolina, United States.
Many thought Coventry was finished after London 2012. This year she has been swimming faster than ever and is ripped and ready for Rio.
“I just performed my last big competition before Rio. It went really well. I walked away with five silvers and three bronzes. It’s important to note that at this stage in the game, it’s not what medals I am winning, but what times I am swimming. I got some season best times, so I’m happy with that but I can’t rest now, the field is open to anyone… I have to keep my focus on training.”
Coventry’s calendar is as full as an Olympic swimming pool. In a week she spends 18 hours in the pool and up to four sessions throwing weights in the gym.
“I will also try and add in one or two yoga sessions. Everything we do, in both pool and gym, is focused on quality sets. It’s a passion and when you are truly passionate about something then you will make the necessary sacrifices.”
“I never realized how tough it must have been to swim when I was younger. Our facilities are shocking compared to the rest of the world. But, I can’t complain because it has made me a stronger person… School was a place where I was teased and made fun of, my swimming club was a safe-haven for me because it was a place I excelled and could gain confidence,” says Coventry.
Coventry took a year off after London to reflect, before committing to Rio. It was hard to regain form.
“I was training with younger athletes who hadn’t taken a year off and, like most athletes, we all compare ourselves to each other and we are highly competitive so having my butt kicked everyday was soul destroying. I had to talk myself through every practice, to remind myself that I was still in the process. Every single day was a bad day. Waking up every morning knowing I was going to lose was terrible,” she says.
All it took was one good day.
“It was like a major reset that helped with the following endless bad days. The reset allowed me to keep pushing through and slowly the good days started appearing more and more until eventually I stopped celebrating the good days and started complaining about the odd bad day,” she says.
There may be merely a handful of Olympians who come back for more at the age of 32. Even fewer had the honor to carry their flag at the opening ceremony.
“Carrying the flag in the opening ceremony is such a privilege because in that moment you are not an athlete but a single representation of your entire nation. Zimbabwe often sends a small Olympic team but we get the loudest applause: we walk out second last, just before the host country, who start walking out as they announce Zimbabwe, and of course the stadium erupts as soon as they see their home country… we’ll take it.”
It’s rarer still to find an athlete with seven Olympic medals under their belt.
“One of the bad sides of winning multiple medals is that it becomes expected of you. There are a lot of people that expect this and it’s sad because suddenly making the Olympics isn’t as big a deal for them, as it should be.”
One of Coventry’s fondest memories was the day she called her parents when she won gold in Athens in 2004.
“My mum couldn’t talk, she just cried. My dad kept saying how proud he was. I don’t think anyone would have made sense of anything that was said between us – it was a beautiful moment that I was happy to share with the two people that had given everything to get me to this point.”
Growing up, Coventry spent a lot of time in the kitchen. The smell of her father’s oxtail and sadza is always a fond reminder of home. Coventry is a proud foodie and cooks hearty meals.
“Fresh produce is delicious – you do not need to smother it with processed junk. My favorite dish to make is pork chops with Aromat and spinach with mashed potato. I have also just recently made my own bread from our own homemade starter (yeast).”
For Coventry it isn’t always about training and eating, it’s also about avoiding. Coventry takes a firm hand when it comes to doping in sport; she has openly criticized the World Anti-Doping Agency (Wada) for their lack of enforcement of those being caught.
“The International Olympic Committee and Wada have taken recent steps to retest all medal winners from 2008 and 2012 [caught doping] and this does give me some hope. I don’t think it will be a level playing field in Rio but I’m confident that anyone who has doped and continues to dope will be caught. The problem this has for the clean athletes is that they lose out on standing on the podium, watching their flag being raised and possibly earning a far greater sponsorship.”
Some do not escape the long arm of the anti-doping law. In June, tennis star Maria Sharapova tested positive for meldonium, a drug prescribed for heart disease patients to treat inadequate blood flow, which was put on Wada’s list of banned drugs.
“Yet another twist in the epic saga between scandal and sport. While Sharapova’s violation was declared unintentional, she was nonetheless found guilty of negligently contravening the (World Anti-Doping) Code,” says Shweta Mani, Head of Legal and Compliance at CNBC Africa.
As you read this, Coventry will be in the pool for her last minute training for Rio.
“It’s not just my training that has evolved since my first Olympics in 2000 but everything has evolved: my body, my mind, my attitude. I turned 17 at the Sydney Olympics in 2000 and I’m entering my fifth Olympics aged 32. I remember being crushed with massive sets during my college years (2001-2005). I would literally be bruised from some of the gym work. It certainly was a military-style boot camp of sorts. Don’t get me wrong, some of the workouts I do now will still make me heave but this comes more from an internal desire to push harder rather than the external motivation from the coach.”
Coventry may have caused a few ripples in her pool in Harare at the age of nine; she is likely to make a bigger splash in Rio.
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