HARARE, Zimbabwe — The African with the most Olympic medals is one of the great distance runners from Kenya or Ethiopia, right?
It’s a swimmer from Zimbabwe.
Like Michael Phelps, Kirsty Coventry is going to the Olympics for the fifth and final time, and she’s swimming for one more little slice of history in the Rio de Janeiro pool.
Phelps has the all-time Olympic record with his medal haul of 22, but Coventry needs one more podium finish at her last Olympics to be the first female swimmer to win eight individual medals.
It’s not an arbitrary stat. It underlines how Coventry, from a southern African nation with very little Olympic success (apart from hers, that is) has done it all by herself. No help from relay teammates to boost that medal count.
Zimbabwe has won eight medals in total at the Olympics, and seven of them have been provided by Coventry, the two-time gold medalist in the 200-meter backstroke. The country’s only other medal is a women’s field hockey gold won during the boycotted 1980 Games in Moscow.
She’s already Africa’s best at the Olympics. As for the other mark, Coventry is level on seven individual swimming medals with Hungary’s Krisztina Egerszegi. Rio is the last chance to edge ahead of Egerszegi. Coventry is 32, on her way out, knows it, and can make light of it.
Who’s the swimmer to watch at the Rio Games?
“Me!” she responded.
“In all seriousness the field of swimmers is so strong right now, it’s crazy,” Coventry wrote in an email exchange. “I remember saying how strong it was in London [in 2012], but Rio will be even more so.”
Of them all, Coventry rates U.S. swimmers Camille Adams and Katie Ledecky highest.
“Camille Adams … she will get you out of your chairs when she is racing. And then there is Katie Ledecky. She will blow your mind. They are the whole package: hard working, competitive, confident, talented, beautiful and filled with positive energy and kindness.”
Coventry’s been pretty good, too, basically representing her country at the Olympics single-handedly over the last 16 years, and ending up with more Olympic medals than any other African athlete. In the pool, too, not on the running track, normally the most fertile ground for African athletes.
“Making the Olympic team is a huge accomplishment, going to five Olympics is incredible,” she wrote. “But winning this number of medals in a sport that is not strong in Africa is unbelievable.”
Like Phelps, she made her Olympic debut as a teenager in Sydney in 2000. And they’ll finish at the same time. In Rio, Coventry will focus on her favorite race and the one that’s brought her two Olympic golds, the 200 backstroke. She’s also qualified in the 100 backstroke and 200 individual medley.
Is there one more medal in there somewhere? It’ll be tough. She didn’t manage to get on the podium in London four years ago.
Coventry grew up around swimming and the Olympics. She remembers watching the ’92 Games in Barcelona on TV and telling her parents she wanted to go to the Olympics. She went to the Sydney Olympics while still at high school. She broke through in Athens with the first of her back-to-back Olympic titles. She went to Auburn University in Alabama, winning NCAA swimming championships while she studied. She was desperately grateful for an Olympic scholarship that helped her prepare for Beijing. She also broke the world records in the 100 and the 200 backstroke.
Makes sense, then, that she stays around sport and the Olympic movement. Coventry is now a member of the International Olympic Committee and serves on the IOC and World Anti-Doping Agency’s athletes’ commissions. She has clear opinions on the big issues affecting the Olympics right now.
On the Russian doping scandal, Coventry said: “This is a huge embarrassment for Russia and the Russian authorities are responsible … there is a higher level of dishonesty at play. This is a warning to any country, coach, parent and athlete that is doping or considering doping: it does not matter who you are and it may not happen today, but you will get caught, and you will become an embarrassment to your friends and family.”
And on the Zika virus and the problems it has presented for the Rio Olympics, Coventry said she never once considered skipping the games. “Brazil are going to put on a great show. It’s going to be an awesome Olympics with some outstanding performances and I can’t wait to get there.”
Onto the last Olympics for Africa’s best Olympian and, ideally, one last medal. But if not, no big deal.
“It’s always been about a desire to make the Olympic team and represent my country,” Coventry said.