BANGKOK (Reuters) - With a gold-medal tally trumped only by swimming giants Australia and the United States, Zimbabwe’s performance at this month’s world short-course championships was staggering.
Most impressively, one swimmer -- Kirsty Coventry -- won all Zimbabwe’s medals.
“On the medals table, you can’t see who wins what but yes, it was just me -- it feels amazing,” a beaming Coventry told Reuters in an interview in Manchester, England.
“It’s a great honor to represent my country, so we finish so high on the medals table. It’s a great achievement for everyone.”
Coventry won four titles in Manchester -- three in world-record times -- plus a bronze medal, to put Zimbabwe fourth overall, behind the U.S., Australia and the Netherlands, who also won four golds as well as five lesser medals.
Her performance brought some rare positive news to her economically-crippled country which is locked in a political crisis after a disputed presidential election.
Unsurprisingly, with severe food, fuel and job shortages and inflation at 165,000 percent, Zimbabwe is a country not used to winning anything in sport.
“Things aren’t that good. I take any opportunity I can to raise our country’s flag really high and get some shining positive light on things over there,” added Coventry, a white Zimbabwean who moved to the United States because of the lack of funding and facilities at home.
“My family, friends and parents are still there. I know how much it does for people back home.”
Although she has always preferred not to discuss politics, Coventry, 24, said the situation had become so dire in once-prosperous Zimbabwe that urgent change was needed for the sake of its 13 million people.
President Robert Mugabe, who has ruled the southern African country for 28 years, affectionately called Coventry “a golden girl” despite his tough stance towards minority whites.
“Everyone there including President Mugabe knows something needs to change because so many people are hurting,” Coventry said.
”I hope that does happen. I know that’s part of why I‘m doing what I do. I hope it makes a difference and gives people back home hope that things will change for the better.
“People have to remain positive and believe in those dreams. It’s really important.”
Although she always thinks about home, Coventry said her move to the U.S. -- first Alabama and now Austin, Texas -- was “the best decision of my life.”
In 2002 she took up a scholarship at Auburn University, home to one of America’s most decorated swimming teams, and two years later helped to bring an end to Zimbabwe’s 24-year wait for an Olympic medal.
At the Athens Games, Coventry won three -- gold, silver and bronze -- and was treated to a hero’s welcome on her return home to Harare.
Coventry walked a red carpet to the beat of African drums while thousands of Zimbabweans danced and sang. She was given $50,000 “pocket money” and a diplomatic passport at a party held by Mugabe, the 84-year-old leader blamed by critics for the country’s problems.
Several newborn babies were named Kirsty, some with the middle name Coventry, others were even called “Goldmedal” or “Threemedals” to celebrate her Athens haul.
One newspaper said the sight of her atop the medals podium had “soothed the country’s soul.”
“Everyone at home is so supportive,” she said. “People recognize me, say how proud they are of me. It’s awesome to hear, it’s amazing to know I can touch so many people in a positive way.”
Before Coventry’s success, Zimbabwe’s only Olympic medal had been gold for the women’s hockey team at the boycott-hit Moscow Olympics in 1980, the country’s first year of independence.
Coventry is now Zimbabwe’s biggest sporting name, taking over the mantle from former Liverpool goalkeeper Bruce Grobbelaar, a close family friend.
Despite her glittering record, which includes Commonwealth gold, six world titles and seven golds at the 2007 All-Africa Games, she says success at August’s Beijing Olympics is not guaranteed.
“It’s been amazing, I could only have dreamt of doing things like this, but it’s keeping me focused,” said Coventry, tightly clutching a hefty glass trophy for the best individual performer of the world championships.
“I have to stay on track, focus on Beijing, focus on the challenge. All I know is it’s going to be really, really exciting.”
Editing by Clare Fallon