Zimbabwe’s Kirsty Coventry is an Olympic swimming champion and former world-record holder, but her retirement from top-level sport following the Olympic Games Rio 2016 last summer did not signal the end of her involvement in the Olympic Movement.
The 33-year-old has recently been appointed chef-de-mission of her country’s team for the 2018 Youth Olympic Games (YOG) which will take place in Buenos Aires next year in October. The swimming icon admits that she is hugely honoured to have been awarded the position and feels that it was the right step for her to take after hanging up her goggles for good last year.
“This feels like a really natural progression from one thing into the next,” she said. “For me, it was about figuring out how I could be a support to the athletes and then this position came up so it was good timing. I was super-excited to get it. I felt like this would be a great opportunity to spend some time with up-and-coming athletes and, for me, I think that having been a part of the International Olympic Committee (as the IOC Athletes Commission Representative on the Foundation Board of the World Anti-Doping Agency) for the past few years and having gone to the YOG, this seemed something that I would hopefully be able to add some value to in terms of helping the athletes achieve their goals.”
The young Zimbabwean athletes could not have hoped for a more qualified chef-de-mission. Coventry won everything there is to win in her discipline; over the course of her 16-year international career, she picked up an incredible 20 world championship and Olympic medals. She has also, though, endured the lows that elite sport inevitably brings and so is hopeful that her vast experience will be a useful resource for the young Zimbabwean athletes to tap into.
“I hope that my experience will be helpful,” she says. “That was part of what gave me the confidence to apply for this position- that I’ve been through so many different things in sport. I’ve been through ups and downs, I’ve gone through successes and disappointments and so hopefully, when the athletes speak to me, they will feel that and so they’ll feel comfortable.”
The YOG has become a starting block for thousands of young athletes to help them early on in their international sporting careers on and off the field of play. Many of the young athletes make the transition to the Olympic Games and Coventry, who was just 16 when she competed in her first Olympic Games, agrees wholeheartedly that next year’s YOG in Argentina will play a significant part in the what is often a tricky transition from youth to senior competition.
“I believe that this experience will be extremely important for the young athletes,” she explains. “I think it’s a very good stepping-stone to help them try to understand the magnitude of the Olympic Games because it’s just such a massive thing. I remember at my first Olympic Games being quite overwhelmed and thinking: ‘Oh my gosh, this is absolutely huge!’. You’re in the Village with athletes from all these different sports and all these sporting icons and heroes which is very different.
“The YOG will also help them understand the pressure that comes with representing your country at the top level. I think it’s really important for them to go there and learn about what major events are like so that by the time they get to the next level which is the World Championships or the Olympic Games, they have the confidence of knowing what they need to do and how they need to prepare in order to do well.”