Out of Africa: Kirsty Coventry, Auburn’s SuperFrosh

AUBURN, Alabama, April 28. FOLLOWING the conclusion of the Southeastern Conference Championships at Fayetteville, Arkansas, in late February, the Auburn
women's team — which finished a disappointing third — began preparations for NCAAs a month later at Texas.

While the 10 other Lady Tigers, including World Champion/American-NCAA record-holder Maggie Bowen, who qualified for The Big Dance focused their efforts on getting back to hard training, classes and — yes, boys! — the 11th qualifier, Zimbabwe froshwoman Kirsty Coventry, had more pressing concerns.

A hotly contested presidential election campaign (and an extremely controversial one too) was going on in her southern African homeland 5000 miles away. And the election's outcome could have a major impact on her and her family's future life and livelihood.

If incumbent President Robert Mugabe were to retain the chief executive's job, much to the disapprobation of the world's leading democracies, political and economic sanctions were likely to be imposed on this small African nation.

If Mugabe were turned out of office, there would be
"hell to pay," as his supporters loudly proclaimed in the days leading up to the election.

As it turned out, Mugabe won — although the legitimacy
of the election has been questioned by many observers, including former President Jimmy Carter — and Coventry is hopeful that normalcy has returned to her troubled nation.

"We all hope and pray we can get on with our lives and that these sanction threats are just that, threats, and will not be implemented," she said recently by phone after practice in her charmingly lilting English accent. "We've heard that the Commonwealth countries especially want to take action against us but so far nothing's been done."

One of Coventry's greatest fears was that Zimbabwe, a former British colony located next to South Africa that only gained its independence 22 years ago, would be excluded from this summer's Commonwealth Games in Manchester, England.

"New Zealand was very vocal about keeping us out but it looks as if we'll be able to compete. We'll probably have to raise the money to go ourselves as
the government isn't likely to sponsor us but we're planning on being in Manchester in July," Coventry says.

(Newe Zealand, incidentally, was the country that sparked the African boycott of the Montreal Olympics a quarter-century ago by competing against a touring all-white South African rugby team.)

Presuming Coventry makes it to the starting blocks in Manchester, she'll be a solid threat to bring home Zimbabwe's first Commonwealth swimming gold medal in her country's history, presuming her performance at NCAAs is any indication.

In Austin the third weekend of last month the Tiger rookie took third in the 200 back (1:54.37), was fourth in the 100 back (53.67) and led off Auburn's
400 medley relay that earned the bronze medal in 54.52. She also won the consols of the 200 IM to complement Bowen's second-consecutive victory in
the finals.

Oh, incidentally…after that third at SECs, Auburn moved up a couple of spots at NCAAs and won its initial women's Division 1 title to go along with
a pair of men's champioonships from the last decade. The win made Tiger coach David Marsh only the second man to ever win DI Swimming and Diving Championships for both men and women at the same school. Florida's Randy Reese first did it in the early 1980s.

"'My God, we won! Unbelieveable. Pinch me. It isn't true,' was how I felt when we were all up on the victory stand at the conclusion of the meet," Coventry
recalls. "Little me, who'd never won anything except maybe a few local races back home, here I am in America on a national championship team. No way!"

But there WAS a way and the Tigers, under the leadership of Marsh and assistant Kim Brackin, found it, upsetting SEC and triple-defending NCAA champ Georgia and — ahem — favored Stanford, the writer's pre-season selection.

"After SECs the coaches talked to us and told us not to get down on ourselves, we had too much talent not to do well at NCs, all that stuff. I'm not sure I believed it at first and I'm not sure all the other girls believed it either, but then Maggie [Bowen] got up and spoke about how we could be champions and coming from her we believed it.

"She's amazing, that's the only word I can use to describe her. They showed the World Championships from last summer live back home on TV and when Maggie won the 200 IM I was jumping up and down, hugging all my friends and saying, 'I'm going to be swimming with her next year.'"

What's a nice girl like Coventry doing in a place like Auburn?

"I always wanted to come to America and swim in college here but I wasn't sure what school I would be best suited for. I looked at SMU and Alabama but then a friend told me about Auburn and I began checking them out on the Internet. I liked whatI read, saw they had a strong women's program and they had Maggie so that really got me interested.

'Then Kim [assistant coach Brackin] came over and showed me some videos of the school and when I was offered a scholarship I accepted on the spot. I wasn't in a position to fly there and visit the school beforhand but Kim convinced me Auburn was the place for me and she was soooooooooo right."

Coventry arrived on campus in early August and was basically left to her own devices for several weeks before school officially began late that month. Marsh and most of the Auburn squad was a continent away at Clovis, CA., competing at the U.S. summer Nationals.

"A few kids who didn't go to Clovis were there to show me around and I got to swim in the pool [Auburn's world-class 50 meter facility] so I felt comfortable early on. When school began and practice officially began I was lost. I was homesick. I had never been away from my family for any extended length of time before and in the pool I was getting my butt kicked.
I didn't have the [swimming] background the other girls had and I was fearful I couldn't handle the workload."

Marsh recalls Coventry's tentativeness at first but says she quickly overcame her doubts.

"Maggie began working with her and she'd stay after practice to work on things like starts and turns and she quickly adapted," he adds. "You could see right away she had the ability to make it at the DI level, it was just a question of getting her comfortable with our program and with swimming in a yards pool — something she had never done before."

Coventry says one of her biggest surprises was seeing snow for the first time.

"I woke up one morning and saw this white stuff on the ground and thought, 'What's this? Snow? They have snow in Alabama?'"

Another aspect of college life Coventry found amusing was her classmates' lack of knowledge of her country.

"Everybody would ask me if I was English or maybe Australian. When I told them I was from Zimbabwe I'd get these quizzical looks as if people were saying, \'Zimbabwe? Where's that? Or they'd ask me if I had elephants or wild animals back home, stuff like that.'"

Perhaps her teammates were unaware of her country's geographic whereabouts but there was no doubt as to Coventry's presence in the pool. At SECs she turned more than a few heads (presumably including Marsh's and Brackin's) with her 53.82 Tiger school-record to win the 100 back, and finished a close second to teammate Margaret Hoelzer, also a froswoman, in the 200 back (1:55.35-1:55.39).

"I'd like to say I planned to win at SECs but going in I probably would have been just happy to final. When I touched the wall at the finish and saw my name atop the standings I was thinking, 'Too much. Too much.'"

Did winning SECs instill confidence for faring well at NCAAs?

"It didn't hurt," she smiles. "But then I began seeing what some of the other girls did at their conference meets, especially Natalie Coughlin, and
I got depressed real fast. I thought, 'No way can I be competitive with those people' but Maggie and my other teammates soon had me believing otherwise.

"And Kim and I talked and she kidded me about how Natalie puts her suit on just like I do, one leg at a time, and we both laughed."

At this time the wind up to the election the first Sunday in March was taking place and Coventry was spending almost as much time on the net as she was in the pool or the classroom.

"I called my parents over the Christmas holidays but it was too expensive to do it very often so I relied on e-mail and the net to keep up on what was happening back home. I was very concerned about what could or might happen depending on who won [the presidency] but I had to put it out of my mind and just get on with the business at hand [preparing for NCAAs]."

At Austin, her first reaction on seeing Coughlin {aside from "Goodness, that's her!" was that she (Coventry) was at least as tall (5-9) if not taller than the Cal star.

"Then I saw her swim and of course you can't help being impressed but I figured, 'Why worry about her? She's just one swimmer.' I have to do my thing and if she beats me, well I gave it my best effort."

Coventry qualified ninth in the 200 IM opening day, just .05 off eighth-place Virginia's Mirjana Bosevska's 1:59.64. She swam a pr 1:59.47 to win the consols that evening and the butterflies were history.

"What a relief that was. I was bummed out about not making the finals but when I got on the blocks that night I felt confident. I swam my best time so I was very happy and so were the coaches and the team, they were all so supportive.

"Then Magie won the finals, beat [Shelly] Ripple in a very exciting race and set the American Record and we were off and running."

Auburn took the lead after the first day's events and led throughout the meet.

"Thec ooaches kept telling us we could do it, that we had 11 solid swimmers and that all we had to do was focus on our races and the points would come. Maggie said basically the same thing and coming from her we knew it wasn't just words. She believed in her heart we could win and everybody else soon was on the same page."

Coventry's times in the backstroke are both Auburn school records and Marsh says there's more to come in the next three years.

"She's just scratched the surface of how good she can be," he adds. "At SECs and afterwards she was extremely concerned about the political situation in her country and it showed. At NCAAs she was more relaxed but still kind of uncertain of herself and how good she was.

"Taking that [200 IM] win was a big step forward and gave her confidence for the 100 back race. That in turn helped her place high in the 200. She's a competitor."

Coventry began her aquatic career as a breaststroker and freestyler, but switched to backstroke a few years ago.

"I was never very good in breaststroke but our club needed smeone to swim that on relays so I was elected," noting that she has a younger sister who's
also a swimmer and is considering attending college in the States.

Would she recomend such a move for her sibling?

"In a minute. In fact, I'm trying to see if we can get her over here [Auburn]. That'd be neat."

One of Coventry's principal adversaries for backstroke supremacy at Mancheser may be Britain's Joanne Fargus, who swam at NCAAs for USC.

"I didn't get a chance to meet her or talk to her at nationals but she's been 2:10+ long course which is a lot faster than I've ever gone. And her teammate, Sarah Price, has been even faster so I think they'll be quite formidable at the Commonwealth Games and I'm sure Australia has a couple of girls who are quite good too."

"She's a real talent," Marsh concludes, "and we were very lucky to get her. I've always been a strong believer in developing our [American] kids but when you have a chance to get a 2:17+ IMer who's also a 56+ 100 freestyler [lcm]…hey, you can't pass up that opportunity."

With Bowen back for her senior season next fall and all of Auburn's NCAA scorers also returning, is a repeat in the cards?

"Of course. Piece of cake. I want — how do you say it? — a'four-peat,'" laughs Coventry.

– Bill Bell

Kirsty Coventry - Auburn, 2002 NCAA Championships

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