16 Years After Her First, Kirsty Coventry Enjoying One Last Olympic Run

Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

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Editorial Coverage Sponsored By FINIS

By David Rieder

Kirsty Coventry finished sixth in her two best events at the London Olympics, but she knew that her career could not end like that.

Coventry’s fourth Olympic appearance was her most disappointing. At her first in Sydney when she was just 16 years old, she became the first Zimbabwean swimmer to qualify for the semifinals at an Olympics, and at her second in Athens, she won the first Olympic swimming medals for her country, one of each color—including gold in the 200 back.

In Beijing, she won a trio of silver medals in the 400 IM, 100 back and 200 IM—going under the existing world record in all three races—before finally breaking through with a gold medal and world record of her own in the 200 back. In between, she won four individual NCAA titles and helped Auburn win two team titles during her NCAA career, and she also picked up three World Championship gold medals, the last of them coming in 2009.

Coventry wanted one more Olympic medal from London to add to her collection, but a pair of setbacks before those Games proved too much to overcome. She dislocated her knee four months before the Olympics and then was diagnosed with pneumonia two months later, and the ensuing pair of hospital stints set Coventry back in her training.

“London was one of the challenging moments of your life where you have to push through,” Coventry said in March 2015. “I just didn’t feel right walking away from it.”

After London, Coventry moved home to Zimbabwe. At that point, she had been living in the United States for 11 years as she trained at Auburn and later Texas. She got married around that time, but the taste of unfinished business lingered. Within a year, Coventry knew that she wanted to make a comeback.

During the summer of 2014, she began training in Charlotte with David Marsh, who had coached Coventry at Auburn. She knew that Marsh and his squad of professionals—five of whom would go on to qualify for the 2016 U.S. Olympic team—would push her to the best of her ability, but Coventry especially wanted to relish the moments she spent in pursuit of her fifth Olympics.

While training in Charlotte, Coventry became especially close with Cammile Adams, who earned a spot in Rio in the 200 fly at Olympic Trials but only after being disqualified and then reinstated in prelims. Coventry had watched the race online but turned off her computer before getting the text about Adams’ DQ.

“I couldn’t reach anyone, and I didn’t know what was happening. It was the most awful feeling,” Coventry said.

Of course, all was well after 10 minutes and a decisive video review, and Coventry got to speak with Adams on the phone before the final. The whole week proved stressful and emotional for Coventry as she watched on television as one race decided the Olympic fates of so many teammates.

“I’ve never really watched an American Trials and been so invested in it,” she said. “Looking back, I know that’s part of why this journey’s been so fun, because I was invested with other people way more than I had been.”

That journey will lead Coventry to Rio, where she is again hoping to bring home a medal in one of her signature events. The landscape of the 200 back has changed since Coventry won her last World title in the event in 2009—only one other finalist from that race is entered to swim the event in Rio. Still, the 200 back figures to be her best shot at the eighth Olympic podium appearance of Coventry’s career.

Coventry currently ranks 18th in the world this year in the 200 back with a 2:09.09 swum in June, and she finished sixth at last summer’s World Championships in both the 200 back and 200 IM. Coventry has won three Olympic medals in IM events throughout her career and still plans to compete in the 200 IM in Rio, but training this year has been all backstroke, all the time.

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Photo Courtesy: Peter H. Bick

While she has pared down her focus in the pool, Coventry’s dry-side responsibilities have increased as she has taken on rolls with the International Olympic Committee and with the World Anti-Doping Agency as an athlete commission member. The issue of doping in sports has become meaningful for Coventry, so the ongoing Russian doping scandal hits close to home.

Coventry acknowledges that the IOC’s decision on whether to allow Russian athletes to compete in Rio was tough. She knew that if the Russian track and field federation supported systematic doping, then it was more than likely other sports federations were following suit, but she also refused to believe that there were no clean athletes in Russia.

But above all, Coventry worries about the fate of Russian mid-distance runner Yuliya Stepanova and her husband Vitaly, who originally exposed the Russian doping program. The IOC ruled Stepanova ineligible to compete in Rio this week, and Coventry worries that her alienation will discourage more whistleblowers from coming forward.

“They’re no longer in their country. Their family doesn’t speak to them. They’ve lost everything,” Coventry said of Stepanova and her husband.

More news is sure to break about the scandal, but with just a week to go until the Games begin, Coventry doesn’t want to hear about it. Not right now, anyway—it’s not worth the distraction.

“At the Olympic Games the media should be asking about your preparation and your country and how proud you are to be representing it,” Coventry said. “It shouldn’t be painted with something so negative.”

Results in competition and in training have Coventry feeling confident about her prospects in the pool in Rio, but she acknowledges that this figures to be her last go-round with elite competition.

“Just looking back and appreciating everything my swimming career has allowed me to do, the places it’s allowed me to visit, the emotions it’s allowed me to feel,” she said. “They’re pretty powerful. For me those feelings and acknowledgements have only fired me on and helped with the preparation.”

Coventry admits that during this process she has reflected on her long career and what moments mean the most. But it’s not the crowning ones—any of her four world record-setting swims or Olympic gold medals—as much as the overall package of which she is so proud.

The longevity, for one—Coventry is one of just four swimmers to qualify for a semifinal at the 2000 Olympics who will compete in Rio (the others are Therese Alshammar, Anthony Ervin and Michael Phelps). In a sport where emotions, both positive and negative, can consume swimmers and end careers, Coventry found a way to stay level-headed through the best times and the worst.

“I’m proud that I continue to push myself and try to do better,” she said, “and try to put myself in situations where I’m swimming with better people that I knew would help me get better.”

The highs and lows of the sport that can be incredibly draining, as Missy Franklin can attest to after last month’s U.S. Olympic Trials. Franklin, four years after winning four gold medals in London, admitted that she struggled to deal with the massive expectations heaped on her, and she struggled in both the 100 back (finished seventh) and 100 free (missed the final). She had to dig deep to secure spots in her two individual events, the 200 free and 200 back.

For Coventry, it’s the love of swimming that gets great athletes like Franklin through those difficult moments.

“It can sometimes get a little hard to remember why we started in this sport or why we love it with so many things that happen outside of it,” Coventry said. “I think you just have to go back to find a way to remembering when you were that little kid, and you were excited to go to practice, excited to be around your friends, excited to be challenged.”

For all Coventry has accomplished in the sport, it has never been all about herself. Despite her longtime residence in the United States, she is proud of her Zimbabwean heritage and what she represents for those back home and for those in other poor countries from where few elite swimmers come.

“I’m proud that I was able to represent my country for so many years at such a high level, the Olympic movement and the Olympic stage—especially when Zimbabwe was going through hard times,” she said.

“Just because you might be from a landlocked country in Africa and didn’t have the same opportunities as some other people in first-world countries, it doesn’t matter as long as you keep pushing yourself and working hard.”

2 Comments

2 comments

  1. avatar
    Scott Richardson

    War Damn Eagle!

  2. avatar
    Lisa K. Neuszer Adams

    Hey sweet lady

Author: David Rieder

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David Rieder is a staff writer for Swimming World. He has contributed to the magazine and website since 2009, and he has covered the NCAA Championships, U.S. Nationals, Olympic Trials as well as the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio and the 2017 World Championships in Budapest. He is a native of Charleston, S.C., and a 2016 graduate of Duke University.

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