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19 Aug 2004

Coventry claims Olympic first for Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry had made her Olympic debut four years earlier in Sydney, where, aged just 16, she took part in four events, but didn't qualify for a final. It was nonetheless a landmark achievement, as she had become the first swimmer from her country to reach an Olympic semi-final and that, in itself, was the source of considerable pride.

Zimbabwe had only won one Olympic medal in its entire history, when the women's hockey team took a shock gold at the 1980 Games in Moscow. Now the hopes of an entire country were vested in Coventry.

The young swimmer had certainly flourished since the turn of the new millennium. She had gone to university in the USA to improve her training and development as a swimmer and it was clear that she was now far better and stronger than she had been in Sydney. But could she really compete with the best in the world?

Coventry was entered into three events this time: the 100m and 200m backstroke, and the 200m individual medley. The 100m backstroke came first, with Coventry not just matching her earlier achievement by reaching the semi-final, but then going on to qualify comfortably for the final. By the halfway point, it was clear that she was going to win a medal, but despite a late surge she couldn't quite overtake the American Natalie Coughlin. However, by taking silver she had won the first individual Olympic medal in Zimbabwe's history.

The individual medley followed the next day and it produced another medal for Coventry, this time a bronze. That left just the 200m backstroke, with Coventry now feeling confident that she belonged among the elite.

She qualified for the final with the minimum of fuss, preserving her energy for the medal race and a showdown with her closest rivals: Stanislava Komarova of Russia, Japan's Reiko Nakamura and the German Antje Buschschulte.

In the event all four women swam well and, curiously enough, all four earned a place on the podium. But it was Coventry who prevailed, leading from start to finish and keeping her cool to win by more than half a second from Komarova, who took silver, while Nakamura and Buschschulte finished in a dead heat to share bronze.

Coventry returned home as Zimbabwe's greatest sporting hero. And she would return to Olympic competition four years later to win another gold and three silvers.

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