Kirsty Coventry (16 September, 1983) is a Zimbabwean swimmer and is considered one of the strongest backstrokers and individual medley competitors in the world.
While still in high school, Coventry swam her first Olympics as a 16-year-old at the 2000 Sydney Games, becoming the first Zimbabwean swimmer to reach the semi-finals (in the 100m backstroke). She then left for the US and Auburn University in Alabama, with whom she won three national championships, captained the team in 2004/5, and was named NCAA Female Swimmer of the year in 2005.
At the 2004 Olympics in Athens, Coventry announced herself on the world stage by winning the 200m backstroke, coming second in the 100m backstroke, and earning a bronze medal in the 200m IM. She stepped her performances up a notch the following year at the World Championships in Montreal, winning both the 100m and 200m backstroke, placing second in the 200m and 400m IM events, and earning the Female Swimmer of the Meet award. She couldn’t quite match this high performance at the next World Championships in Melbourne in 2007, but nonetheless walked away with silver medals in 200m backstroke and 200m IM.
As impressive as her results had been through the end of 2007, they paled in comparison to the landmark year that Kirsty had in 2008, a year in which she broke six world records. Her string of incredible achievements started in February at the Missouri grand Prix, where she set a new world mark of 2:06.39 for the 200m backstroke. Less than two months later at the World Short Course Championships in Manchester, she broke three world records in four days (400m IM in 4:26.52, 200m backstroke in 2:00.91, 200m IM in 2:06.13), and set a new championship record in her fourth event (100m backstroke), taking gold in all four events, along with the FINA Female Swimmer of the Championships award. Finally, in August at the Beijing Olympics, she eclipsed the existing world records for 100m and 200m backstroke, successfully defending her 200m title and breaking her own world record in a time of 2:05.24, and narrowly losing the 100m final to Natalie Couglin (her world record was set in the semi-final). In both the 200m IM and 400m IM events, she swam under the existing world record time, but ended a close second behind Stephanie Rice.
Yet another world record fell to Coventry at the 2009 World Championships in Rome, where she once again bettered her own mark in a time of 2:04.81. She also took home silver in the 400m IM.
Having taken a year off after the Rome World Championships, Coventry returned to the pool in time to compete in the 2011 World Championships in Shanghai. Her time out of the pool told in her results, as she failed to make the final in any of her events (200m back, 200m and 400m IM). With her sights set on the 2012 Olympic Games in London, Kirsty’s preparations had a setback when she dislocated her knee in March, 2012, and subsequently contracted pneumonia. Thankfully, intensive treatment restored her health and fitness sufficiently to take part in the Games, where she was just one of three swimmers vying for a three-peat, following her 200m backstroke victories in Athens and Beijing. Unfortunately it wasn’t to be, and she finished sixth in both 200m backstroke and IM.
Coventry was named female African Swimmer of the Year on six occasions, in 2004, 2005, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2011. As of the completion of the 2012 Olympics, she has the most Olympic medals of any African athlete in history, the joint highest number of individual Olympic medals for swimming of any female athlete, and the joint second highest number of individual Olympic medals for swimming of any athlete overall (male or female).
It’s quite normal for a 9-year-old who sees the Olympics on TV for the first time to express the desire to one day compete in them and win a gold medal. It’s a different matter for the child to go on and accomplish it, though, but that’s just what Kirsty Coventry did. What she didn’t realize as a youngster, however, was how much it would affect not only her life, but also the lives of others. Sometimes circumstances play a rather larger part than usual in the magnitude of an Olympian’s impact on others, as it did with Kirsty.
Born and brought up in Harare, Zimbabwe, Kirsty loved being in the water, and so it was a natural progression for her to start swimming. It wasn’t long for her talent to emerge, and before she was out of her teens she was winging her way to America and a new life. When she won her first Olympic gold medal in Athens in 2004, she did so in the colours of her native country. Zimbabwe, for its part, stopped still for that magical moment, experiencing as a nation one of their own accomplishing something that no individual athlete had before. In a country where inflation was running at over 10 million percent, and a ruling regime ostracized for its heavy-handed dictatorship, Kirsty gave the common man something to grasp on to, a glimmer of hope that they – like Kirsty – could rise above their daily struggle and accomplish something meaningful. Sport, after all, is a unifier unlike anything else.
Kirsty stopped over in Harare on her way back to the US from Athens, and was stunned by the reception. President Mugabe came to meet her, calling her “our golden girl” and giving her $50,000 (later given to charity) along with a diplomatic passport. There was dancing and “tears of joy” in the street, she was treated as a “national treasure”, and “Kirsty”, “Goldmedal”, and “Threemedals” suddenly started appearing as popular names – the first more than the others – on birth registers. She received a similar reception on her stopover in Harare after Beijing.
For her modest part, Kirsty is flattered by the attention, and simply glad that she has been able to give the common man something to cheer in their difficult lives. She wisely steers clear of talking about the obvious issues with the political situation, going only as far as acknowledging that there are problems and that change is necessary. Besides, her success has also spawned the construction of swimming and sport centres, and sparked a renewed enthusiasm for swimming and sport.
Zimbabwe in turn has taught Kirsty simplicity and humility, and to appreciate everything in life. She has a close relationship with her family, and credits them with having a large hand in her success through the way they have supported her and helped to keep her feet on the ground.
Once you’ve been to Africa, it’s said you’ll never forget it, and will hanker to return. If you’re born there, it’s forever in your blood. After more than 10 years in the US – first in Alabama and then in Austin – Kirsty finally returned to her roots, or at least close to them, in 2011. Her training centre in Johannesburg, South Africa, placed her close to her family and her native Zimbabwe, and the kinds of opportunity that you could only find in Africa – autumn nights next to the fire on the Zambezi River, along with her favourite meal of sadza (a kind of cooked corn meal that’s a staple in various parts of Africa). And of course, her favorite – her dad’s oxtail. Unfortunately, it all proved to be too much of a distraction, and so to concentrate on her Olympic preparations, she reunited with former coach at Auburn, Kim Brackin, who was then head coach of the women’s team at the University of Texas.
Since the London Olympics, Kirsty has been anything but idle – she was elected to the IOC Athletes’ Commission, she visited two AMREF water projects in Kenya as Arena’s representative, and she got engaged to long-time boyfriend Tyrone Seward.
In early 2013 she led the Kirsty Coventry Tour of Zimbabwe – 'Inspiring our youth to become their own heroes', which was aimed at inspiring and motivating the country’s underprivileged children through her story and interaction with the children. She also ran a number of swimming clinics to assess the country’s young talent, development programs and the current swimming situation in Zimbabwe.
With so much happening in her life, her future plans are somewhat unclear, but there’s one thing that one can always be sure of in Kirsty Coventry’s life – it won’t be idle and it won’t be dull.