Kirsty Coventry, Africa’s most decorated Olympian, has started preparing for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games, though training is set to start in earnest when she heads to the US this month.
“I will be leaving Zimbabwe to go back to the US in July. I have been training for the last few months though the serious training will begin when I arrive in America,” Coventry told Harare News via email from Tokyo where she is working as part of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
“Once I have spent time with my coach in Charlotte, North Carolina, we will start looking at my events. I will probably only make the decision as to which events I will be aiming for at the end of 2015,” she added.
Rio will mark her fifth appearance at the Games in an Olympic career spanning more than 16 years. Coventry first swam at the millennium Olympic Games in Sydney aged just 16, and has competed at every event since. She will be 33 at Rio.
Coventry’s first medals were at Athens ’04 where she won one of each colour. Building on this, she took the pool by storm at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, winning three silvers and a gold, and making her the most decorated female swimmer of all time for individual events, a status shared with Krisztina Egerzegi of Hungary, who was last decorated in 1996.
Coventry’s London 2012 Olympics were marred by a knee injury in the build up to the Games. Despite this setback at a critical time, she reached the finals in the 200m backstroke and 200m individual medley, though never made it to the podium.
Now Coventry is looking to open up a lead over Egerzegi and claim the title of greatest woman Olympian in the pool for herself alone. As any professional athlete would, she has her eyes on gold, and with seven medals and four Olympics under her belt, knows what is needed to get there.
“It takes hard work, one hundred percent strength and huge mental effort to win a gold medal,” she says. For Coventry, confidence is vital, but it’s more than just a mindset. “When I am standing on the block, about to dive in for a race, I know that I have done everything I need to be where I am. I cannot teach myself to have that much confidence, I have to know that I have earned it.”
A backstroke specialist who has also shined in the medley events, Coventry says that she is not eyeballing the competition too closely ahead of the 2016 Games, suggesting that “If you narrow down your competitors you open yourself up for big surprises and anyone on any day could be a big surprise.”
This is a lesson from her past, when back in Athens ’04, she swam to silver in the 100m backstroke in lane 1 – an outside lane to which the slowest qualifying times are allocated. It earned her the name ‘Outside Smoke.’ “Everyone has a chance of doing really well and although this adds pressure on me, it reminds me that I can’t control what everyone is doing, I can only control what I am doing,” says Coventry.
Her training requires Coventry to spend 18 hours a week in the pool, supplemented by a gym workout on most days as well. Having previously had to juggle a degree in hotel and restaurant management with her athletic endeavours, Coventry relishes the chance to focus solely on her training, with her days only beginning at 7am instead of 5am. Her regime entails lots of healthy eating, and a daily nap between 1:30 and 3.00pm.
That said, her term on the IOC does keep her busy outside of the pool. She is part of the Athlete’s Commission which works with top sportspeople from around the world to uphold their rights and ensure that they meet their obligations as Olympians. She is also part of the Tokyo 2020 Coordination Commission, the World Anti Doping Agency, and Olympic Solidarity – the developmental arm of the IOC that works with Olympic Committees worldwide to nurture promising athletes from all backgrounds.
Her transition from being just an Olympic athlete to include mentorship and oversight roles have enriched Coventry’s perspectives on this prestigious world event; “Since being elected onto the International Olympic Committee, the Olympics has become more important and only now I can see the bigger picture. It’s about the positive impact sport has on a person’s family. It is about the impact sport has in the community and the impact it creates for a nation, from health to social benefits, from bringing people together and creating peace amongst all of us.”
With her busy schedule, Coventry is not at home in Harare as much as she would like. She uses what time she does have to see her family, and is also active with the Tikki Hywood Trust – a private voluntary wildlife conservation organization with a focus on the protection of the critically endangered pangolin species (see here).
Zimbabwe will always be close to her heart, and her big personal achievements have her dreaming big for her country too. “We have the potential to be one of the greatest countries in the world and I hope that we can all strive to work together to achieve this. I believe that we can. I would like for us as a nation to honor our promises, strive for excellence, work hard, be a family, come together and help each other – this is my hope for our Zimbabwe,” she says.
To follow Kirsty’s progress and share messages of support with her as she embarks on her journey to Rio de Janeiro, find her on Facebook (OfficialKirstyCoventry) and Twitter (@KirstyCoventry).