Medals on the podium, the thrill of competition and widespread adulation: the rewards for being a top-level athlete never fail to entice and inspire.
Nor do they ever mask the ephemeral nature of elite sport. A celebrated career as an athlete – and all the acclaim that comes with it – is ultimately brief, ending at an age when most others are still in the early stages of their working lives.
The purpose of the IOC Athlete Career Programme is to help recently-retired sportspeople prepare for the wider world of work through professional development and job placement support, impacting over 22,000 participants since its launch in 2005.
For Kirsty Coventry, however, the transition began while she was still making waves in the pool.
The Zimbabwean is Africa’s most decorated Olympian, having won seven medals in swimming, competing in five Games between 2000 and 2016. In a career spanning over 15 years , she achieved considerable success in the water – but became inspired to raise awareness of its dangers early on.
“I was listening to a basketball player speak a long time ago at a Peace and Sport Forum,” she explains.
“He talked about how athletes don’t choose whether or not they’re role models. That resonated with me because you don’t choose. If you’ve been successful – whether in your hometown, your country, or your continent – you are a role model to others.”
This epiphany prompted Kirsty to establish the Kirsty Coventry Academy in 2015, its principal aim being to save lives in Zimbabwe through water safety and drown-prevention programmes.
“You have a great opportunity to create change, to create strength within a community, and to create the possibility for people to come together and hold each other accountable.
“That was a big reason for establishing the academy. We’re starting by focusing on drown-prevention and water safety and hopefully that will lead to some other programmes we’d like to run.”
The academy is still in its early stages of development, which means ensuring that everything is up and running has not come without its challenges – especially with Kirsty calling Charlotte, North Carolina (USA), her home for the past two-and-a-half years.
“I’m very much a control freak: I like to be in control of things. It’s really easy for people to presume you have an ‘out of sight, out of mind’ mentality, so we’ve been in the United States but trying to get a lot done back home [in Zimbabwe].
“The biggest issue is communication. By the time we get up in the morning in Charlotte it’s already halfway through the day in Zimbabwe.”
Such teething issues are surely to be expected for anyone attempting to run an organisation remotely. Once these are resolved, the next step for Kirsty is to oversee the steady growth of the academy and widen its message.
To this end, the 33-year-old has been quick to use the media contacts cultivated during her swimming career to promote her charitable work.
“It’s been great to reach out to certain people and say, ‘This is what we’re doing; it would be great if you could follow our progress and give us some good write-ups every now and again.’ That goes back to the relationships you’ve created during your career,” she says.
“You look at some businesses that have these marketing campaign budgets and as a non-profit you have to say, ‘We don’t have that.’
“But we do have people in good places, and you make sure to keep those relationships going. Hopefully, they will pay you back with some good things.”
Combining training with other work commitments can be a difficult task for many athletes, and the foundation of Kirsty’s academy coincided with her preparations for a swansong at the Olympic Games Rio 2016.
Far from being burdensome, however, this balancing act proved to be more of a help than a hindrance.
“It definitely did not hold me back. If anything it helped, because it was another way for me to give back to a community that had supported me for so long,” she reveals.
“The thing that will stay with me the most is that while people loved it when I was winning medals, they were just as proud and just as happy for me when I came to Rio and finished sixth.
“That shows the respect they have given me over the years. So now is a good time for me to start giving back.”
As a former athlete still adjusting to the demands of a new career, Kirsty has plenty of advice for fellow sportspeople interested in philanthropy.
The Zimbabwean ultimately has grander plans to extend the goals of her academy beyond just swimming – but stresses the importance of identifying and focusing on one particular area during a charitable organisation’s crucial formative phase.
“Try to be quite specific when you’re starting. We don’t just want to have an impact on swimming; we eventually want to help children participating in other sports. But we had to pick a starting point,” she explains.
“Being a swimmer from Zimbabwe, I knew there were a lot of open water sources and that we have quite a high drowning rate. So that is naturally where we wanted to start.
“But it was hard: to begin with, you have to make sure the money is going to the right places.”
In its first year of operation, the Kirsty Coventry Academy donated USD 30,000 worth of school supplies to a primary school in Harare, taught water safety lessons to 477 school children and saw a further 377 school children receive swim lessons through teachers trained by the academy.
While this makes for encouraging reading, Kirsty claims it is a “drop in the ocean” compared to what she believes the academy can still do.
With this attitude – which helped her become one of the most successful Olympic swimmers of all time – there is no reason why Kirsty’s lofty ambitions cannot be met.
Want to know more about how to become a social entrepreneur like Kirsty? Check out the IOC Athlete Career Programme’s resources on Education, Life Skills and Employment at: https://www.olympic.org/athlete-career-programme