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Kirsty the greatest sports star

By Glen Byrom

IS Kirsty Coventry’s golden swim in Athens the greatest individual sporting achievement in this country’s history?

etica, sans-serif”>Factually, her gold, silver and bronze medals – for backstroke and individual medley – are the only individual Olympic medals for any discipline ever won by a Zimbabwean sportsperson.

Anthea Stewart’s astonishing team triumphed in Moscow 1980 as the inaugural women’s hockey gold medal winners, but individually the closest this nation had ever come to any medal was in 1960 – yachtsman David Butler’s fourth place at Naples, Italy, in the Flying Dutchman class.

Crewed by Chris Bevan, the suave Butler won one of the series of seven races – a great moment to savour for our landlocked country against the champions from the world’s maritime nations. Tragically, while competing in Europe in 1972, Butler was killed in a motor accident.

Certainly golden girl Kirsty must be on the very top of the nation’s sporting pedestal. But who might deserve to be ranked her equal? That question is sure to stimulate lively debate.

There is definitely one. Her unquestioned peer is golfer Nick Price, winner of several major championships, including the British Open, and for a sustained period the number one-ranked golfer in the world. That in 2000 he should be named this country’s sports star of the century seemed a foregone conclusion.

Who else might we consider, for a top-of-the-world individual achievement, in our rich sporting heritage?

Cricketer Colin Bland was the world’s greatest fieldsman (adding an individual dimension to the game); Terry Sullivan in 1960 became Africa’s first sub four-minute miler; Gary Hocking (double world motor cycling champion in 350cc and 500cc and TT winner); Jim Redman (by 1965 six times world motor cycling champion for Honda); Anthea Stewart (World XI hockey); Mike Procter (world record equalling six first-class centuries in succession); Dave Westerhout (world combat pistol shooting champion in 1977). There will be others offered up for discussion.

In swimming perhaps our most famous son has for long been John Keyter. Starved of international competition, through political isolation of the Rhodesian era, and maintaining gruelling training schedules for flimsy local challenges, he seemed to be on the brink of proving himself world-class as he prepared for the 1968 Mexico City Olympic Games. But his dreams were shattered when the Mexican government refused visas to the politically outcast Rhodesians.

He garnered 11 South African butterfly titles and retired in 1970. He had been offered tempting American scholarships at various times, but had declined. His dedicated coach Frank Parrington, who at age 79 still avidly coaches the Highlands Club in Harare, said in 1970: “If he had gone I’m sure he would have developed into a world beater.”

Today’s wonder girl, Kirsty Coventry, did seize the opportunity of an American scholarship and Auburn University has propelled her to the ultimate accolade of Olympic gold.

In the wild jubilation of the moment spare a thought for Kirsty’s long-time local coach Charles Mathieson. Over the formative years, from age six, the Harare coach instilled her basic techniques and was her inspiration.

Kirsty’s name was in the Highlands Swimming Club record books from the age of six and from age 10, now a Pirates Swimming Club member, she utterly dominated Zimbabwe swimming. Even today most records in three of five strokes in the 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15 and 16-plus divisions belong to Kirsty. Only a sprinkling have been broken.

For veteran Frank Parrington (never Kirsty’s coach but a great friend of the family’s) the Olympic gold has filled him with personal joy after a heartbreaking year of losing first his Springbok water polo son Marty and then, in recent weeks, his wife and former British Olympic swimmer Lilian.

“Kirsty’s gold is going to give Zimbabwe swimming a tremendous boost,” said Frank, who paid tribute to Mathieson for doing “all the donkey work over so many years”.

“Our swimming has been in the doldrums for the last couple of years and this is just what it needed. I’m sure there are going to now be many swimmers who feel inspired to try to follow Kirsty.”

This wise old man of swimming says you can predict a future champion at an early age.

“At around 10 years old you can detect if they have the talent,” he says. He pinpoints two young swimmers who have the talent to pursue their dreams – Kim Eeson (14) of Harare and Samantha Richter of the Lowveld.

There will be renewed local interest to watch this duo, and other swimmers who have gained renewed inspiration from Kirsty, as the new Zimbabwean season unfolds soon.

But for now the spotlight is fixed on our new golden girl Kirsty. She richly deserves the accolade, along with Price, as the greatest individual sports star in this country’s history.

*Glen Byrom is former sports editor of the Herald and correspondent at the Munich 1972 and Moscow 1980 Olympiads.

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