SWIMMING icon Kirsty Coventry has for the umpteenth time defended her motherland and said despite being a white Zimbabwean she had never suffered any racial prejudices and has always felt at home in her country.
Coventry, speaking on a BBC World Services programme Sporting Witness, said she has always been a proud African.
The 33-year-old secured iconic status following her exploits at the Olympic Games in Athens in 2004 and Beijing in 2008 where she won gold for Zimbabwe.
Coventry has a combined medal haul of two gold, four silver and a bronze from the two editions of the Summer Games. She became the first and only local athlete to win an individual medal at the prestigious games, after the hockey team won the country’s first medal, a gold at the Moscow Games in 1980.
Coventry, one of the most successful African Olympians, told the presenter who was keen to know, how she survived considering she was from a minority white race “in a country where the same President displaced whites with his land reform programme at the turn of the millennium. “I am so proud. I love my country and I love that I got to represent them at the highest sporting level. Africa and Zimbabwe is in my blood.
“The President has called me the Golden Girl of Zimbabwe, but for me it was the everyday person on the street, just saying you made us so proud that’s what’s important.
“I think in any country there is always different issues, for Zimbabwe there has been racial tensions but when people see me, they see me as Zimbabwean they don’t see me as a white Zimbabwean, just Zimbabwean and that is one of the best things,” said Coventry.
Following her exploits at the Olympics, Coventry received a fat cheque of $100 000 from President Robert Mugabe, which she donated to charity.
The swimmer, who retired after the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, says she wants to leave a legacy.
“We have lots of rivers, lakes and dams.
“We just had extremely high rains in the last few months, it has taken homes, people have drowned, so swimming is a very important life skill and that is something I can leave as part of my legacy, making sure that communities have access to learning these life skills,” she said.
During that interview, Coventry went down memory lane as she vividly remembers how she first put the country on the map in Greece after her first race in the 100m back stroke.
“Right from the beginning we never once spoke about medals (with coach Kim Brackin), we spoke about times, if we can go your best time then we could possibly place a final.
“….winning the race in the last 25m, I just pushed as hard as I could, I touched the wall and I won a silver medal and I think I surprised the commentators just as much as I surprised myself because they didn’t know who I was, or where I was from, they especially didn’t know Zimbabwe, you know the country.
“I won a bronze medal and the 200m individual medley on that race day, suddenly the commentators, the reporters all knew about Zimbabwe, they were asking questions which I think is part of the reason why the Olympic Games is so unique.
“You are not just representing yourself and your sport but your country and people get to learn about it,” she said.
Her last race was her strongest, 200m backstroke.
“I think I quite had a sleepless night obviously this time I was super nervous. We have never spoken about medals and suddenly I had two. So the pressure was a little bit higher. Going into the 200m backstroke, we were all very even. We all had done similar times throughout the year, so really it was anyone’s race. Athens stadium was an outdoor pool which reminded me so much of home, blue sky and cloud and I think that put me at ease.
“I remember right before the race it was very quiet, before they kind of set us off I just remember taking a deep breath, and the last maybe 15, 20 metres where I really started to hurt but something within me just said, no just keep pushing your hand on that wall. I didn’t want look up at the scoreboard so I looked over at Kim and her and one of my team mates. They were both jumping up and down, and going absolutely crazy and I said okay I think its good news and then I looked over and got to see it was a gold medal. It was very exciting. I ran over and gave them a hug and we all started crying,” she said.
In Beijing, Coventry said together with her coach, they set their targets much higher and were obviously disappointed getting three silver medals after she had made it in four finals.
Just like in 2004, her strongest race was the last one.
“I looked over Kim before I jumped into the water and she gave me this big smile and I thought okay. The way the pool was set up, there was a big screen, which was showing where everyone was, and I wasn’t supposed to look but I saw I was in the lead so I kept just pushing and I saw my first 50 spilt was way faster than where I should have been and I started panicking a little bit, Oh gosh I have over swam and I am going to die. Again, I lifted my head and saw she was near (American Margret Hoelzer ) she was really getting very close and I just thought swim as hard as you flipping can and touch that wall and I did and I touched the wall. I looked up at the screen and saw I had not only won but broke the world record and that was just a huge sigh of relief,” said Coventry.